Having spent five weeks up north this winter surrounded by a landscape of snow, starkly naked trees and days of little sunshine, it was so good to make the drive back south and see the beginnings of spring. In Zone 9a, we have quite a few plant selections that let us know that warm weather is around the corner. We can incorporate them into the home landscape for their early spring blooms. This list below is just a sampling of what is available. In a well-devised landscape, one can potentially have flowering plants year-round in Coastal Georgia.
Red Maple (Acer rubrum)
This native deciduous large tree is found growing in drier parts of the inland swamps from Texas to Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. Although it grows best in moist lowlands, it does well in upland conditions provided it receives adequate irrigation. The species is most commonly dioecious, meaning that some trees are entirely male and some are entirely female. However, a few are monoecious, bearing both male and female flowers. The small, numerous bright red flowers appear before the leaves emerge, usually in early-mid February. The bright red fruit will appear only on trees having female flowers; it is winged, more conspicuous than the flowers and also appears before the foliage. Leaves have three lobes and depending on winter conditions can offer fall color ranging from red, orange and yellow in our area. Typically, good fall color is seen on plants growing further north. Red maple has a fast growth rate and can reach heights of 60 feet with equal spread. Popular cultivars for our southern climate include “Florida Flame” and “Southern Red,” which has glossy deep red new leaves in the spring. In summer, newer leaves are burgundy-red, while the older leaves become rich, dark green. Both cultivars offer good fall color. High pH (> 7.2) can result in a manganese (Mn) deficiency. Manganese availability is best regulated by adjusting the soil pH rather than by Mn fertilizer applications. If pH is lowered through sulfur applications, more Mn is available for plant use. In the late fall and early spring, apply 1.5 lbs. of granular sulfur beneath the crown of the tree out to the dripline (where branches end). Water in thoroughly since sulfur can cause chemical burn to turf grass, especially in dry soil. Elemental sulfur will be broken down by soil bacteria when soil temperatures are above 50°F.
Japanese Apricot (Prunus mume)
This personal favorite of mine is a deciduous small tree that flowers before the leaves emerge between January and March. The flowers are lightly fragrant. Japanese plum needs full sun or partial shade and a well-drained soil rich with organic matter. It will grow 20-25 feet tall with an oval or umbrella shaped canopy. Its cultivars include white, pink, rose and red flowering forms, with either single or double flowers. It can be challenging to find in garden centers. We have always had to ask if it can be brought in on special order. Some popular selections include “Peggy Clarke” with double deep-rose flowers “W.B. Clarke,” with a weeping growth habit and double pink flowers, and “Rosemary Clarke,” with double white flowers.
Bronze Loquat (Eriobotrya deflexa)
This evergreen tree grows up to 25 feet tall. The 5- to 10-inch stiff, leathery leaves are toothed and oblong, glossy green on top with a rusty brown tomentose on the underside. Newly emerging leaves are bright copper and will hold that color for quite a while before turning to green. Clusters of small white fragrant flowers appear in the spring. They are followed by small inedible fruits that attract birds and other wildlife. Bronze loquat requires moist, well-drained soil and full sun to light shade conditions. The more commonly seen Japanese loquat (Eriobotrya japonica) blooms in the fall and has yellow-orange, pear shaped one-inch edible fruit.
Japanese Magnolia (Magnolia x soulangeana)
One of the most beautiful small flowering trees that welcome in spring is the Japanese or Saucer magnolia. This deciduous plant opens it fat, furry flower buds in February or early March before the leaves emerge. The 4- to 6-inch flowers bloom in colors of dark rose-pink, rose-purple, lavender-pink, light yellow and white, depending on cultivar. They first appear upright and more tulip-like but will eventually open to a more saucer-like shape. Flowers have a spicy fragrance. Japanese magnolia will grow to about 15 to 25 feet in height with a spread of 10 to 15 feet. This magnolia is a cross between M. lilliflora and M. denudata. Plant Japanese magnolia in a well-drained, sunny to partly sunny location. A popular hybrid magnolia used in our area is Magnolia “Susan,” a cross between M. lilliflora (“Lily Magnolia”) and M. stellata (“Star Magnolia”). “Susan” is one of the Little Girl Series (“Ann,” “Betty,” “Jane,” “Judy,” “Pinkie,” and “Ricki”) which bloom about 2-4 weeks later, reducing the risk of damage to flowers from a late frost. “Susan” has fragrant goblet-shaped fuchsia flowers with slightly twisted petals, a more shrubby and compact growth form and a mature height of 8-12 feet tall.
Azalea (Rhodendron sp.)
What is the southern landscape without azaleas? They are so common that I have rarely recommended them in a landscape design. However, it doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate their blooms that herald in spring. Azaleas do best in moist, sandy, slightly acidic soil with high organic matter and good drainage. A few of the most popular evergreen azaleas include the large spreading Indian Azalea forms such as “Formosa” with rosy-purple blooms, “Mrs. G. G. Gerbing” with white blooms and “George Tabor,” with light pink flowers; somewhat dwarf Kurume Azaleas forms such as “Coral Bells,” “Pink Pearl,” “Snow,” and “Hinode Girl.” Other evergreen azaleas include Pericat Hybrids and Rutherford Hybrids.
Carolina Jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens)
Carolina Jessamine is the state flower of South Carolina. This native evergreen vine is found in wooded areas, scrambling up trunks and through branches and is most noticeable in early spring when its golden, trumpet-shaped blooms emerge in prolific, small clusters. Best grown in moist, organically rich, well-drained soils in full sun, Carolina Jessamine is tolerant of wind and moderately salt tolerant. It can be grown as a twining vine on an arbor or trellis or as a bushy ground cover. It has a modest growth rate and may take several growing seasons to cover an average-sized arbor. It can become top heavy; pruning back right after flowering will prevent this from happening. Roots and bark are poisonous.
One of the best ways to see what early bloomers catch your eye is to drive slowly through your neighborhood or those nearby and see what is planted. Visit a local garden center. Travel to an arboretum where plants are labeled and stroll the many acres of labelled specimens. Jacksonville and Gainesville, Fla., Savannah, and Charleston, S.C., all have arboretums worth visiting throughout the year. The fresh air will be good for you!