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Ask Dr. Phipps: Early Spring Blooms
Mar 24

Ask Dr. Phipps: Early Spring Blooms

By Phipps Master Gardener

Q: I really like the color of early spring flowers. Can you recommend some that I should get to enjoy this year and into the future?

A: It is that time of year when we can look forward to seeing more and more color in our yards. Here is a list of exceptional early bloomers.

Bulbs – You will want to make a list and purchase and plant these in the fall. Alternatively, there are many on-line nurseries from whom you can order your bulbs and they will ship in the fall when they are ready to be planted, try Breck's.


The earliest bulbs we can expect to see in the Pittsburgh area are crocuses, snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis), and winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis). These hardy bloomers have been peeking out in late February and early March. Daffodil (Narcissus spp.), tulips (Tulipa spp.), grape hyacinths (Muscari armeniacum) and hyacinths (Hyacinthus orientalis) are also early blooming bulbs. Later in spring you will see iris and alliums.  

Perennials – Some really wonderful spring perennials are hellebores and bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis). Spotted dead-nettle (Lamium maculatum) shows early green foliage followed quickly by purple flowers.  Creeping phlox (Phlox subulata) is a beautiful carpet of color come spring. Other favorites include columbine (Aquilegia) and candytuft (Iberis).


Shrubs – Witch hazels (Hamamelis) are wonderful as they bloom in winter with many flowers still blossoming in early spring. Azaleas (Rhododendron spp.) and forsythia can also announce warmer spring weather with brightly colored flowers.

Trees – Early blooming spring trees are quite a treat. Some early spring bloomers include magnolias, such as saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangiana), eastern redbud (Cercis Canadensis), white or pink flowering dogwood (Cornus spp.), cherry trees (Prunus spp.) and wild plum (Prunus Americana).

For more suggestions, check out Phipps Top Ten Sustainable Plant list and our new on-line tool, the Sustainable Plant Finder, and select “spring blooms” under seasonal interest for a list of suggestions from our collection of sustainable plants.

Before shopping, call around to your local nurseries. Some have closed for the winter season and may not reopen until late spring, so give them a call first to be sure they are open for sale and that they have the plants you are looking for.


My hydrangea don’t always bloom, or seems like every other year. I don’t cut the woody stems either. Any pointers? thanks!

By Kathy on Mar 31, 2020

Hi Kathy - here are a few possibilities for you and others who may have similar problems:
First possibility—Are they “florist hydrangeas?”  Did you receive them as a gift with the pot wrapped in colorful foil?  If so, those hydrangeas are not winter hardy in our area.  The buds cannot take a freeze here in Zone 5 or Zone 6 even though the roots survive the winter and push out new leaf growth in the spring.  They usually do not bloom in our planting zone.

Second possibility—Are they receiving enough sun?  Hydrangeas often do not bloom if they are not receiving enough sunlight each day.  They need about 6 hours of direct sunlight each day (preferably morning to mid-day sun with afternoon shade or partial shade).

Third possibility—You cut them back or trim them in the fall or spring.  Most Hydrangeas should never be cut back or trimmed unless they are damaged or becoming unwieldy where they are planted. Many Hydrangeas bloom on old wood, or old and new wood, so by trimming them or cutting them back, you cut off the buds that are forming for the next year.  The exception is Hydrangea paniculata which only blooms on new wood.  When Hydrangeas bloom on old wood or old and new wood, it takes a long time for them to flush out leaves on the old wood near the top.  The rest of the plant may begin flushing out leaves mid spring but the tops may not flush out until May.  Be patient and see what happens with your Hydrangea.

Fourth possibility—Sometimes winter temperatures may be to blame.  If you know we are in for some severe winter temperatures or winters interrupted by unusual warm spells and then followed by cold snaps again, you can carefully wrap your hydrangeas in burlap during the winter.  Otherwise, if we get a warm spell in winter followed by a drastic cold snap, it can damage or kill tender flower buds.  Another possibility is to initially plant your Hydrangeas in an East facing or North facing area of your garden especially if you live in a Northern area (such as we do).  Then they warm up more slowly.  This reduces the chances of your Hydrangea buds being harmed early.  You can also plant your Hydrangeas near your house.  The warmth from the house can offer a temperature shield of sorts.  But wherever you plant them, make sure they are receiving enough sun.

One last thing—Too much nitrogen fertilizer will result in an abundance of healthy leaves but at the expense of blooms. If you are using a fertilizer, check and see if it has a high level of nitrogen.

It is helpful for you to know which type of Hydrangea you own.  There are several different types of hydrangeas that include Hydrangea macrophylla (big leaf Hydrangeas such as “Endless Summer” which bloom on old wood and new wood), Hydrangea paniculata ‘Grandiflora’ (sometimes called PeeGee…these only bloom on new wood), Hydrangea quercifolia (also known as Oakleaf Hydrangea), and Hydrangea arborescens (“Annabelle” and others). You can research the type of Hydrangea you own (if you know) and find good care tips.

By Phipps Master Gardener on Apr 14, 2020