Updated: Feb 10
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Spring is so close I can practically smell it! If you're like me and dreaming of the first project you're going to tackle this spring, it likely includes ignoring all of the site prep and maintenance in favor of wandering your local garden center for new plants.
This list started out as my top ten spring plants- native or not- and it was so heavily weighted with native selections, that I decided to keep the theme rolling. Don't get me wrong, I love the color and excitement bulbs add to the garden in spring; while cherry trees aren't my personal favorite, there's no denying their delicate beauty; and even though forsythia and azaleas are certainly colorful, they're a dime-a-dozen, so my snobby designer nose looks down past them.
If you're new to the world of native plants, first, where have you been? And second, quickly get caught up with this wonderful read by local professor, entomologist, and author Dr. Douglas W. Tallamy, Bringing Nature Home. In his book, he makes the case for supporting native plants based on the mutual relationship that has evolved between native insects and native plants. Insects feed birds and larger animals up the food-chain, so plant native plants and support wildlife.
There are numerous other reasons to plant native species as well, which sounds like a great idea for a new blog post...
So without further delay, I present my take on the best native plants for spring interest! Keep an eye out for them as you peruse your favorite garden centers and nurseries- you can scratch that itch for something new AND support wildlife while you're at it.
Best Native Plants for Spring
10. Celandine Wood Poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum)
Not to be confused with lesser celandine, an extremely invasive species that also sports yellow flowers in spring. Celandine poppy is an ephemeral plant, meaning that it comes up in early spring before the trees leaf-out, flowers, sets seed, and then goes back under ground in the heat of the summer. I think part of the appeal to me is its fleeting presence. It's a treat to watch it grow, mature and go dormant while so many other plants are just getting started.
It is in the poppy family (Papaveracea) so it has leaves, flowers, and seed pods similar to the common red poppy you may be more familiar with. I often see bees climbing diligently over the stamens which is added entertainment for the kids (and me quite frankly). The plants produce fuzzy, round seed heads for added interest before finally going dormant around July.
For me, Stylophorum comes up reliably year-after-year, although it hasn't spread much. I also successfully transplanted it from my Philly garden to the suburbs and all of my plants took. However, I visited a garden near Kennett Square where the owner said the plant spread like wildfire there. I only wish I could get mine to do that...
09. Golden Groundsel (Packera aurea)
I love this plant but it's not for the faint of heart. Full disclosure, this is an aggressive native perennial, but sometimes you need just that. Golden groundsel (formerly Senecio aureus) is a semi-evergreen perennial that prefers moist shade conditions, so I often use it in the bottom of a rain garden. There, it helps hold the soil and mulch in place year-round, then it blooms a magnificent gold display in spring before getting shaded out by the taller shrubs that leaf-out later.
Up close, I love the tiny purple buds that form before popping open to loads of bold yellow flowers. You may also see tiny pollinators zooming from flower to flower.
Golden groundsel spreads by underground rhizome as well as seed. The seed-heads can look a little messy, so if you're active in the garden, I recommend removing the seed-heads to tidy the garden, as well as slow the spread of this plant. I find that this plant spreads much slower in dry soil and has actually failed to takeoff in upland shade conditions.
If you are looking for something to stabilize soil or just grow well in your wet-shade conditions, give this plant a try!
08. Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)
This small tree is an oldie but a goodie. Whether blooming in pink or white, flowering dogwood accents the woodland understory before the taller canopy trees have a chance to leaf out. In my area, about 15 miles northwest of Philadelphia, blooming begins in early to mid April and continues for about four weeks. This is about a month earlier than its non-native counterpart, kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa).
These common understory trees are best grown in bright shade or along the edge of the woods but can perform well in full sun too (although they are more susceptible to stress in full sun). Flowering dogwoods usually reach about 20-30 feet tall and wide. Because of their low and wide branching habit, one of my favorite spots to use this tree is along a privacy fence to extend the screen up and out.
If you have a dogwood tree on your property but are unsure of whether it's the native flowering or non-native kousa, here are a few easy ID features to compare:
Flowering dogwood has...
Kousa dogwood has...
rounder flower petals
pointier flower petals
a earlier bloom time
a later bloom time
more equally distributed blooms
flat clusters of blooms
clusters of small, shiny red oval "berries"
larger round, matte red hanging fruits
07. Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica)
This is another spring ephemeral, but this time with beautiful pink buds, opening to brilliant sky-blue flowers. Virginia bluebells thrive in moist soils with a fair amount of sun or bright shade (before the canopy trees leaf-out).
I've often thought of Mertensia as a delicate plant, but in the right conditions, I've seen this plant compete well with golden groundsel. When planted with less-aggressive plants, a few Virginia bluebell starter plants can form their own beautiful blue colony each spring; however because of its ephemeral nature, this is one plant I would not worry about taking over your garden!
People love Virginia bluebells around here, so if you decide to add this one to your garden this spring, start shopping early and grab it while you can. They are nearly impossible to find by Mother's Day.
06. Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia)
Red chokeberry (formerly Photinia pyrifolia) blooms clusters of delicate white flowers in April. My go-to cultivar is 'Brilliantissima' partially because it performs so well and mostly because it's the most readily-available cultivar on the market (at least around here...).
This shrub grows well in both moist and drier soils, making it an excellent choice for rain gardens as well as the average garden.
It has a prominent "vase" shape so it works well with layering. In the picture here, I used it in a narrow space between a fence and a stone wall. The shrub gets everything it needs at ground level, then all of the sun and space it needs above the wall. In a more average garden setting, I'd plant perennials around the base of chokeberry.
Its size is quite suitable in a residential garden, so if you have a sunny location that needs an airy shrub, this may be the shrub for you.
05. Woodland Stonecrop (Sedum ternatum)
I'm using my platform here to spotlight this amazing little plant (like 6-inch-tall little). This is a succulent sedum, like you'd typically imagine growing in sunny, well-drained soils HOWEVER Sedum ternatum also thrives in part-shade and moist soils. These features make it a unique for that shady outcropping you may have or around a shady water-feature.
In April and May you may notice tiny pollinators and even butterflies attracted to the delicate white flowers of this plant.
Give woodland stonecrop space to spread, as it will form a dense mat in the right conditions. It also propagates easily from cuttings like most sedums, so experiment with it and try moving parts of it to new locations.
Please note that Sedum ternatum goes by many common names including woodland stonecrop, wild stonecrop, whorled stonecrop, and three-leaved stonecrop. When shopping for this guy, its probably best to search by botanical name.
04. Dw0arf Fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii)
Dwarf fothergilla is perfect for so many residential landscapes thanks to its fairly compact size and attractive but not-too-flashy foliage. This deciduous shrub leafs out after its white bottlebrush flowers emerge. The cotton ball size flowers are adorable in the garden and are particularly attractive to tiny pollinators as well!
This plant maxes out around 4 feet tall and wide but can be kept closer to 3 feet tall and wide with pruning, if you'd like. Because of its size, I often use fothergilla along the foundation between my structural and evergreen plants. I love it en masse or standing on its own. Additionally, fothergilla foliage is light green and pubescent which makes it a beautiful natural contrast to darker green foliaged plants without feeling contrived.
From experience, fothergilla tends to be an easy to grow shrub, tolerant of moist to average soil and full sun to shade. The only place I've had trouble growing it was when planted among the roots of a mature tree, but even so, it's done better in that scenario more often than not.
Stick with the straight-species here if you're looking for great performance and a small stature. The cultivars I've tried performed less than optimally and, while 'Mt. Airy' is tried and true, it's a hybrid with Fothergilla major, so its size is larger than F. gardenii.
I often say that this is one of my favorite shrubs all around, so it definitely deserves a place on this list!
03. Creeping Phlox (Phlox stolonifera)
There are so many phlox species out there, but hopefully Phlox stolonifera makes it onto your radar soon. This very low, spreading perennial prefers shade in contrast to the better-known garden phlox and mountain pinks. Additionally, creeping phlox is more deer resistant when compared to woodland phlox (a similar looking phlox for shade).
It forms a low mat along the ground, helping shade out weeds during the growing season. In April and May, it sends up stems of flowers shaded in dark pink to purple to almost blue. My favorite cultivar, 'Sherwood Purple', ranks among the top performing phloxes for shade at the Mt. Cuba Center trial gardens.
The best part about this phlox is how it accents other spring-blooming shade garden plants. I regularly combine this with foamflower at the base of understory trees; but I've also used it with bleeding hearts and wild geranium. I love the combination of creeping phlox with native wild ginger (Asarum canadense), however, I've found that if the garden is too moist, it invites slugs which can devastate both the Asarum and Phlox. Try it with Chrysogonum (green and gold), Sanguinaria (bloodroot), or even among bulbs. The possibilities are endless!
02. Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia)
Foamflower plays nicely with just about every other shade plant I use. It has low mounding foliage which helps keep weed pressure down and its broader leaf shape compliments smaller foliaged plants like carex, boxwoods, phlox and more. In suburban gardens, this plant often remains semi-evergreen, although that seems to vary year-to-year and site-to-site.
Stems of dainty pinkish-white flowers emerge above the foliage in April and brighten the shade garden.
There are many cultivars from which to choose, mostly showcasing different foliage shape and color. One of my go-to selections, however, is 'Running Tapestry' which has a spreading habit in contrast to the typical mound form of this plant. I'm often trying to fill in space, and 'Running Tapestry' certainly provides more bang for your buck.
Careful not to place foamflower in too much sun or the foliage is easily burned, but when used in a a shade garden, this plant is very easy to grow!
01. Redbud (Cercis canadensis)
Redbud is probably the #1 tree I include in my designs. And it's probably my favorite understory tree period. So I think this beautiful tree has earned its rank on this list!
I love the size and shape of Redbuds, topping out around 25 feet tall and maybe 15 feet wide. It has a rounder habit than flowering dogwood but I've also seen so many old or wild redbuds that have irregular shapes or multiple trunks that add an architectural element to the landscape.
I'm always a fan of plants with delicate details that need to be viewed closely to fully appreciate (all part of my ulterior motive to connect people with nature, I guess). But besides the intricate tiny flowers, this tree makes an impact from far away as well- its flowers grow directly along the branches, not from the tips like most woody plants, so the tree glows lavender and pink in early spring. From bud to bloom, you probably get four solid weeks of color before the petals softly flutter away.
There are many cultivars of Cercis canadensis out there- some weeping, some with red or variegated foliage. I typically prefer straight species, tree-form redbuds but I do rely on the burgundy leaf cultivar 'Forest Pansy' for a pop of contrast from time to time.
This tree hits all the marks for me- residential size, spring excitement, intricate detail, bold color, versatile conditions, deer resistant. I'll continue to spec this tree regularly and I encourage you to add one to your landscape as well!
So there it is! Hand-selected by yours truly: The Best Native Plants for Spring. While I feel very confident in this amazing list, I'm always up for a good (plant) debate. What are your favorite NATIVE plants with spring interest (hint: interest doesn't necessarily mean flowers...)?
Comment your favorites below and see if you can sway me! I may even add a Reader Bonus #11 with enough support ;)