After a long dark winter, nothing brings more joy than the arrival of early spring flowers. From bulbs to perennials and shrubs, there are many plants that start to flower just as spring begins.
Here in the UK, there is an early spring flowering plant for every garden. However, plants have differing growing requirements and need to be situated where they will thrive, so it is important to consider where they will grow well to get the best from them.
This guide will cover what plants flower in early spring and where they are best situated, to help you bring joy and hope to your garden as winter ends.
Early Spring Flowering Shrubs
It is often said that shrubs provide the backbone of our gardens, supplying the all-important height and structure. These shrubs will not only help provide this structure, but flower as the garden awakens in spring bringing colour and scent with them:
Sarcococca, or ‘sweet box’ as it is often known, is a shrub that is thought to originate from China from and is a part of the Buxaceae family. A shade-loving and evergreen plant, it is a great shrub for a tricky spot.
Producing heavenly scented white flowers from late winter through to early spring, Sarcococca confusa is a great variety. Growing to H2.5m x W1.5m it is perfect for the back of a border or a large container. The scent the flowers give off is incredible and it is best planted near a spot often walked past so they can be enjoyed, a shaded back door or porch is ideal.
Requiring full or part shade and a sheltered site, they will grow in most moist and well-drained soils, but need protection from the harshest midday sun. Sarcococca confusa is a low maintenance shrub requiring minimal pruning only to keep to size and shape, which can be carried out in early spring after flowering.
Forsythia originally came from Asia and is now commonplace here in the UK and for good reason. An easy to grow shrub, it produces an abundance of yellow flowers in early spring, often in time for Easter, depending when it falls. A bright and vibrant shrub, it injects a great dose of colour and is often used in Easter floral displays.
Forsythias are relatively unfussy and will tolerate most soils, as long as they are moist and well-drained. A hardy shrub, they can tolerate winter temperatures down to -15C and will grow in either an exposed or sheltered site.
Often large standalone shrubs, although recent introductions include some dwarf varieties, they can also be grown up a wall with training.
For a large shrub, forsythia × intermedia ‘Lynwood Variety’ is a good choice growing to H2.5 x W2.5 over time. With an upright habit, its yellow ovate flowers begin to bloom in March as spring dawns.
Chaenomeles or ‘Japanese quince’ as it is commonly known, is a lovely shrub which flowers from March to May. Originating from Asia, they are available here with flower colours ranging from white and apricot to bright red.
From the Rosaceae family, they are deciduous with their stems covered in thorns, which need care when handling.
Producing small 5 petalled flowers in March and April, they are a valuable early source of nectar for pollinators. Being able to withstand temperatures down to -15C they are reliably hardy and able to survive all but the harshest UK winter.
Chaenomeles × superba ‘Pink Lady’ is a great example, with soft pink flowers on a small frame it will grow to only H1.5 x W1.5m and tolerate any soil. As with most chaenomeles, it is best grown in a sheltered spot in full sun or part shade.
Early Spring Flowering Bulbs
Bulbs can give a stunning succession of early colour and brighten up the garden whether in pots or the borders. From winter aconites and snowdrops early on, to daffodils and tulips flowering later in spring, they can provide colour for months on end.
Galanthus or ‘snowdrops’ are such a welcome sight in any garden and indicate that spring in imminent. Often flowering in February and March they look stunning when planted in clumps or in drifts creating a white carpet.
There is a huge range of snowdrops available with some varieties being sold for eye-watering prices. But don’t let this put you off. The common snowdrop or galanthus nivalis grows to H15cm and is widely available and not expensive. Snowdrops are perennial and grow well in moist well-drained soil in part or dappled shade.
Snowdrop bulbs are best planted ‘in the green’, essentially meaning that their foliage is still green and not turned yellow yet, in spring. The bulbs can be planted in autumn, but are less reliable to establish. They require little maintenance, and only need their foliage to be allowed to die back naturally to feed the bulb for the following year and larger clumps divided every few years.
5. Iris reticulata
For an early spring display of blue, purple and yellow, the dwarf Iris reticulata is hard to beat. Growing to only H15cm its colour certainly makes up for its short stature. A part of the iridaceae family, iris reticulata is a bulbous perennial that blooms in March.
Perfectly suited to the front of a border or a terracotta pot, they are best grown in free-draining soil in full sun, or part shade. Widely available, they can be planted at twice their own depth in autumn to flower the following spring.
Over time bulbs will multiply sometimes leading to overcrowding and poor blooms. This can be addressed by dividing the clumps in late summer and replanting.
Early Spring Flowering Perennials
Hellebores are part of the ranunculaceae family with some of the most widely grown varieties including helleborus foetidus, helleborus niger and helleborus x hybridus. With flowers ranging in colour from white and cream to pink and purple there is a colour to suit any garden scheme.
Helleborus x hybridus or the Lenten rose is a semi evergreen perennial and is arguably one of the easiest to grow. Flowering from February and March onwards, they are happiest in moist well-drained soil in part shade. Care must be taken when handling and with children and pets around as they are considered toxic.
With single or double flowers and growing to H.45 x W.45m, they do not like being transplanted and often happily self-seed, producing new plants which can be moved.
For stunning pink and red speckled petals, Helleborus × hybridus Harvington pink speckled is a wonderful plant to brighten up the garden.
Perhaps one of the most thought of spring flowers, especially in the wild, is the primrose or primula vulgaris. A very hardy perennial, withstanding even the harshest winter. With the true wild form being a scented and pale yellow growing to H20cm, it flowers from late February until May and is found in hedgerows and woodlands throughout the UK.
Thriving in most conditions, they are ideal for lining a path or filling a container to provide a cheering display.
Despite their common name primrose, they are part of the primulaceae family and are herbaceous or semi-evergreen. As an RHS plant for pollinators, primula vulgaris will provide a valuable source of nectar for bees and other pollinators.
If left alone, primula vulgaris will self-seed and naturalise in the vicinity or can be divided up every 2-3 years in early autumn and replanted.
Lamprocapnos spectabilis or as it was previously named Dicentra spectablilis, is much more commonly known as ‘bleeding heart’. From the papaveraceae family, lamprocapnos are herbaceous perennials that are adorned with pink, red or white heart-shaped flowers dangling down from arching stems.
With flowers appearing from March until June, they are a great early spring plant to add colour to the garden. Requiring a sheltered spot in partial shade, they grow well in most fertile soils, except acidic. A hardy perennial, originating from China, they will tolerate winter temperatures down to -15C and grow to typically H1m x W1m.
Lamprocapnos do not like being transplanted and being toxic they must be handled with care and when children and pets are present.
For a vibrant red display of flowers Dicentra spectabilis ‘Valentine’ is incredible. Growing to H.8m x W.8m its scarlet red flowers with white tips will brighten up any border or container.
Winters here in the UK can seem to drag on so why not try some of these early spring flowering plants in your garden. Not only will they help provide an early source of food to attract pollinators into the garden, but give something to look forward to as the winter comes to an end and spring arrives in all its fullness.