Spring is the season for some of our most spectacular flowering trees, all the more beautiful when they flower on bare branches or in unison with newly emerging spring leaves. Best of all, you don’t need a huge garden to enjoy them.
Spectacular magnolias, flowering cherries and ornamental crabapples light up the spring garden. By planting a range of varieties with different flowering times, we can enjoy a wave of colour from August through October.
Their flowering may be brief but it is one of springs most breathtaking highlights. Flowering cherries (Prunus) in full spring bloom are so packed with flowers that they resemble frothy clouds. Falling blossom covers the ground like a sprinkling of snow. Flowering cherries are also know for their beautiful shape, and soft green foliage which turns vibrant colours in autumn.
Profuse flowering Prunus ‘Accolade’ is a wide spreading tree, a favourite for larger spaces. Popular ‘Shidare Sakura’ is a smaller weeping tree with frilly double flowers in mid-spring. ‘Amanogawa’ grows bolt upright, ideal for narrow spaces. Prunus pendula ‘Rosea’, the rosebud cherry, is a long-time favourite small weeping tree. Prunus x yedoensis, the lovely spreading Yoshino cherry, bursts out in early spring with a profusion of blush white single blossom. Its NZ raised offspring, Prunus x yedoensis ‘Awanui’, has large shell pink blooms on a similar spreading form, making a lovely shade tree. There are many more to choose from. If you have room for more than one, plant varieties with different flowering times so you can enjoy the show for longer. On the other hand a whole avenue of one variety is heavenly in full bloom.
Flowering crabapples (Malus) are generally later flowering than the cherries. Their mass of blossom usually coincides with the emergence of fresh lime-green leaves, which add to the effect. Crabapple trees offer an interesting range of shapes from shrub-like dwarf trees to narrow-upright, wide-spreading, and weeping forms. While some can exceed seven metres tall at maturity, this takes many years so they make excellent small garden trees.
The Japanese flowering crab (Malus floribunda) is a picture in full bloom, with wide arching branches clothed in a delightful multi-tone display of tight red buds and pink flowers that fade to white. This tree is very true to its name; floribunda means an abundance of flowers. They’re fragrant too. In autumn there are tiny yellow apples, which birds love. Malus floribunda makes a stunning lawn tree, best given plenty of space for its wide umbrella canopy to spread. For smaller gardens, the prairie crab, Malus ‘Ioensis Plena’ is a clear favourite. Its compact frame produces a spectacuar display of large, fragrant double pink flowers in late spring.
Malus ‘Lambada’ has a strong horizontal form. Its flowers are complemented by bronze spring foliage. ‘Prairifire’ has dark purplish-red flowers and dark foliage.
Spring blossom comes in many forms. If your garden is a balcony or tiny patio try a mini peach or almond tree in a pot, or a columnar apple tree. The amazing ‘Ballerina’ apples grow just 30cm wide but they’re covered in spring blossom and then loads of autumn fruit. Flowering quince (Chaenomeles), traditionally a large spring flowering shrub, is delightful grown as a topiary ‘lollipop’ tree.
Prunus and Malus varieties bred mainly for their fruit may not be quite as showy as their ornamental cousins in spring, but they’re still very pretty in bloom. Take your pick from a delicious range of apples, pears, peaches, plums, nectarines, apricots, almonds and quinces. If you’re short on space, grow them sideways along a fence, espalier style.
Crabapples, such as Malus ‘Gorgeous’, ‘Tom Matthews’ and ‘Jack Humm’ are grown mainly for their vibrant winter display of baby apples (great for jelly making), but spring blossom is an added bonus. These are small shapely trees, just three or four metres tall at maturity.
Few trees command more attention than a deciduous magnolia in early spring. There is a magnolia to suit almost any garden. Star magnolias (Magnolia stellata) are large deciduous shrubs, about two metres wide and tall with intriguing white or pink asterisk-like flowers in late winter. The saucer magnolia, Magnolia soulangeana are lovely low branching trees crammed with upright tulip flowers, a great anchor tree in the corner of a garden.
Magnolia’s favourite soil combines excellent water holding ability with perfect drainage - cool, moist, lime-free and humus-rich. The best magnolias grow where well-drained soils meet a healthy rainfall, as happens in many parts of New Zealand. Many have been bred in this country, most famously by the Jury family in Taranaki. Jury hybrids, such as ‘Milky Way’, ‘Felix Jury’, ‘Apollo’, and ‘Vulcan’, are renowned for their ability to flower at a very young age, compared to older magnolias, which can take up to seven years to bloom.
‘Cleopatra’ and ‘Genie’ were bred by Taranaki plantsman Vance Hooper. Both produce large flowers at an early age, and are compact trees ideal for small gardens. ‘Cleopatra’ has rich purple flowers in early to mid spring. Genie conjures up a profusion of pink-red flowers both before and after the leaves emerge and they’ll persist well into January. The foliage is pleasingly small and a rich dark green.
If you love the fragrance and colour of magnolias but need something evergreen, look no further than closely related Michelias. Their flowers are smaller and less showy than magnolias but extremely prolific, and michelias are handsome all year round with excellent foliage. The compact and very free flowering michelias known as ‘Fairy Magnolias’ make excellent small garden trees. They can also be trimmed as topiary or hedging.
Did you know?
Before there were bees and butterflies, there were magnolias. For company they had dinosaurs and also beetles, which were among the first insects to visit flowers.
Typical of flowers visited by beetles, magnolias are large and open with protruding carpels (female flower parts) designed to attract attention.
Magnolia stellata alba