Dolores has landscaped for private clients, maintained one client's small orchid collection, and keeps 30 houseplants.
If you want flowering plants to bloom in your garden at the earliest possible time of year, here is a short list of late winter blooming trees, shrubs, and flowers.
Of course, early spring is so beautiful with everything popping out, the pink haze of leaves on trees, early magnolias, the luminous yellow fountain of forsythia. But if you really develop a hunger for flowers and simply can't wait until spring, there are a few varieties of plants that bloom in February in temperate climates, the Upper South, and in US Zone 6 and 7.
A few of these plants will bloom as early as January, depending on the species and the weather. Occasionally, micro-climates are created in certain sheltered areas that are protected from wind and may be a few degrees warmer than the surrounding area. In these special spots, the earliest flowers bloom very early indeed.
Daffodils and Dwarf Daffodils
Daffodils and dwarf daffodils with their brilliant yellow trumpet shaped flowers are early bloomers, sometimes flowering in the snow. The dwarf variety pictured here bloom earlier than the traditional variety, especially when planted near a foundation or in a rock garden.
Plant daffodil bulbs in fall in rich soil in a hole four times the height of the bulb. Plant bulb with the pointy side facing up. Add a tablespoon of bone meal into the hole to encourage large, brightly colored flowers. Do not cut back the foliage after flowering as the plant needs nutrients taken in by the leaves. Divide clumps every few years.
Often the first flowers seen in bloom, crocus are small, low growing plants that bloom in late winter in white, yellow, mauve, or variegated colors. Leaves are thin and grassy with a thin white stripe down the center. Flowers are upward facing tubular cups that open fully on warm days.
Plant the bulbs, or corms, 4" deep in full sun, in well drained soil in fall. Add a small spoon of bone meal in the hole. Divide every few years.
Lenten Rose or Helleborus
The shy, down turned flowers of the Lenten Rose which is not really a rose at all appear in late winter. Plant in a shaded, sheltered location in moist, well drained soil. This old fashioned cottage garden favorite has seen a new resurgence in popularity, so will be easier to find than it in the recent past.
The plant grows in a rounded mound, 16–20" tall and wide. Flowers appear in red, white, pink, speckled, green, purple, and plum. The Christmas rose, another variety (Helleborus niger) features smaller flowers in a purple so dark that it appears to be black. Divide in fall. US Zone 4–9.
Note: This plant is highly toxic.
Pansies or Viola wittrockiana are hardy biannuals that grow 6–9" high. The fine textured, delicate plants flower in late fall and winter to early spring. Flowers appear in solid or mixed colors in yellow, white, gold, rose, or purple.
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Pansies grow best in rich, well drained loam in full sun. Usually grown as an annual by purchasing bedding plants (as biannuals flower only after the second year). Fertilize one week after planting in fall. Remove old flowers to encourage second flowering.
Camellia japonica is an attractive evergreen shrub with dense, oval, shiny leaves that produces single or double blooms in late winter. The bright rose-like double blooms create an awesome display early in the year in shades of pink, white, red, and salmon-red. Some yellow cultivars are now available.
This Asian native needs to be protected from harsh winter winds and deep freezes, as well as from harsh afternoon sun. Setting a camellia on the east side of the house, close to the house may be an ideal location.
Camellia japonica prefers a moist but not soggy acidic soil. Do not over fertilize. Apply cotton seed meal at the base of the plant before new foliage appears in spring. Hardy to US Zone 6 with some cultivars being hardy to Zone 5.
Common pussy willow sets out pretty silvery gray catkins in February, but the more unusual black pussy willow (Salix gracilistyla 'Melanstachys') is so much more dramatic. With its black catkins appearing on red twigs, black pussy willow is a striking plant. (The catkins are actually very dark purple but appear to be black)
Black pussy willow will last forever if cut and placed in a dry vase.
Plant in full sun to partial shade. Susceptibility to fungal problems can be reduced by planting in full sun. Prefers moisture, as do most willows.
Witch Hazel—Arnold Promise
In 1928, a botanist from Harvard's Arnold Arboretum planted some witch hazel seeds from China. Usually fall bloomers, one plant bloomed in late winter and became the ancestor of the beautiful little witch hazel trees we can see in bloom in February.
Growing no more than 25' tall at the most, Arnold Promise witch hazel blooms with bright yellow, forsythia-like flowers with turned down petals. Plant in full sun to partial shade (more sun means more flowers). Plant in loose, well drained, acidic soil.
Japanese pieris is a mid-sized broad leafed evergreen ornamental shrub with an interesting, graceful form. The shrub grows upright in a loosely oval shape. New leaves emerge in bronze or red, maturing to dark green.
Creamy white, pink, red, or mauve pendulous clusters of flowers emerge in late winter. This slightly fragrant shrub prefers partial to full shade. Plant in moist, rich, well drained, acid soil. Grows best in US Zones 6–9.
Pieris Brouwer's Beauty is a compact, spreading form that is more tolerant of alkaline soils.
Mahonia Japonica or Grape Holly
Mahonia japonica, often called grape holly or leatherleaf holly blooms with long spikes of tiny yellow flowers as early as January during mild winters. After flowering, the shrub produces beautiful blue berries that attract birds.
Mahonia japonica is a hardy and attractive evergreen with thick leathery foliage and very dark green leaves; standing up to 6 feet tall with a 4–5 foot spread. Mahonia is tolerant of a variety of soils and prefers full or partial shade. Susceptible to sun scorch, mahonia should be protected from afternoon sun. Before planting, soak the root ball in water. Add bone meal to the hole.
Hardy in US Zones 6–9. Mahonia japonica may be invasive in some areas of the south.
This attractive pest resistant shrub features bright flowers in shades of white, red, pink, or red-orange toward the end of winter. Flowers emerge before the foliage, which is glossy green. Flowering quince can grow up to 10' tall with a 10' spread.
Flowering quince is tolerant of poor moist or dry soils but prefers slightly acidic soil. Flowers make an attractive arrangement. Grow in US Zones 4–9.
Winter jasmine is a vine like, deciduous shrub with low arching branches that look wonderful on a hill. The plant can be invasive as branches that touch the ground will take root.
Tiny, bright yellow flowers appear in mid to late winter. Winter jasmine may reach up to 4' tall and 7' wide. Plant in full sun to partial shade in well drained soil. Prune after flowering. Grows best in US Zones 6–9.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2012 Dolores Monet
Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on April 27, 2012:
2patricias - oh how could I have forgotten snowdrops?! Thanks for the suggestion - must add. I have the problem with many gardening hubs of relying on my own garden or my neighbor's gardens, looking around and using information based on experience. Of course, we can't experience (or remember) enough.
2patricias from Sussex by the Sea on April 25, 2012:
This is a useful list of plants for early flowers. It is also worth trying snowdrops. They don't thrive in every situation, but when they do they are often the earliest flowers of the year.