Sunday, April 12, 2009

Early spring shrubs - not forsythia

Cornelian cherry dogwood (Cornus mas)

Garden snobs love to deride forsythia shrubs as too obvious, common and even vulgar. I have nothing against forsythia (except when it's been pruned into a bun), but I do find that in my garden, it will only bloom if the winter has been very mild. Generally, we get a bit of bloom at the bottom of the shrubs where the branches were protected by the snow. I know there are some hardier varieties, but our site is very exposed to harsh winter winds, so it's rare that we get many forsythia flowers. That's why I have just two of these shrubs on my 10 acres.

Much more reliable in early spring for us are two species of early-flowering dogwoods that are closely related, Cornus officinalis, Japanese cornel dogwood, which is in bloom at the moment, and Cornus mas, the cornelian cherry dogwood, named for its cherry-like fruits which appear in the fall (shown left).

It's not easy to tell the two species apart as their flowers are so similar, but the Japanese species blooms a week earlier than the cornelian cherry. The other main difference is that fruits of C. officinalis are not as showy as those of C. mas.

Japanese cornel dogwood (Cornus officinalis)

Both of these shrubs are more subtle in flower than forsythia, and for that reason, they are most effective in the landscape if you can give them evergreen foliage as a backdrop. Cornelian cherry dogwood is hardy to Zone 4, and its Japanese cousin is hardy to Zone 5.

One of my favorite garden bloggers, Margaret Roach, has some thoughts on forsythia alternatives and some good pictures at her blog, A Way to Garden, so be sure to check that out.

My spicebush shrub in fall color

Margaret also touts the native spicebush (Lindera benzoin) as a forsythia alternative. I have one of these shrubs, and it's a beauty. The flowers are subtle - I hardly noticed them last spring - but, to be fair, my shrub was very small until it experienced a good growth spurt during last year's moist summer. Then in the fall, it blew me away with its fabulous golden yellow foliage. So if you're looking for a native shrub that's lovely in spring and fall, spicebush (hardy to Zone 4) is a another great choice. Margaret Roach has an amazing picture of hers in flower here. I can't wait until mine gets to be that size.

© Yvonne Cunnington, Country Gardener


  1. Lovely! I think we're going to plant a dogwood in the front yard. I hadn't thought about it as a sub for Forsythia. Great idea!

  2. It is so cold here these recent mornings that the Cornus mas is the only substantial sign of hope, so appreciated. Even the Lindera hasn't dared open up...but soon. Thanks for the nice words.

  3. Hello Yvonne !
    It is great to see other shrubs for Spring .. forsythia gets to be a little too much to take after seeing it every where ? haha
    Spicebush .. now I will have to investigate that one ! Thanks ! Joy

  4. Thanks for another great review, Yvonne. I will be looking for the Cornus mas. It should grow well on a moist, but not too wet spot here.

  5. Thanks Eva, Salix and Margaret for your visits and comments. Always great to hear from you. Best/Yvonne


Thanks so much for visiting this site. I have a new country garden blog and I will no longer be publishing comments at this blog. If you have a question or comment about the topic here, please use the contact form at my new blog to get in touch with me.

-Yvonne, aka Country Gardener