Spring in the Northern Hemisphere

Spring undoubtedly is my favorite time of year in the garden. On the west coast of Canada, spring persists for many months as the gardens here never truly enter a complete period of dormancy. Our climate is very moderate, with no real extremes in temperature (as compared to the rest of the country), so we are truly blessed with an incredible variety of plants that add colour to the landscape at this time of year.

There was a time when we branded our spring garden display the ‘Spring Colour Spectacular’, which does paint a good picture of what you can expect to find when you visit us. I find this to be the most exciting time in the garden, as each day brings new life and vitality, along with an increasing abundance of colour. Not only that, but in this part of the world we experience a lengthening of daylight hours, which also helps to take us out of our winter doldrums. This is truly a season of revival and revitalisation! Early bulbs emerge from the ground to provide pockets of colour and many trees and shrubs bloom in a colourful procession. This leads us into a spectacular climax with a profusion of flowering plants including tulips, hyacinths, cherries, crabapples, rhododendrons, azaleas, viburnums…and the list goes on.

resized Sunken Garden bedsSpring is truly a time of year when you can visit the garden many times and never see the same thing twice, as nature cycles through its incredible sequence of flowering plants. In our garden we annually plant close to 300,000 flowering bulbs (consisting of close to 300 individual varieties) in a display that is designed to continually ebb and flow throughout the season. All of these plantings are designed to complement the surrounding landscape and to bloom in synchronicity with the trees, shrubs and perennials that may share the same border.

Here, I would like to share with you a few plant highlights in the spring garden.

Dwarf sweet box     Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis, Synonym: Sarcococca humilis

I was first introduced to this beautiful dwarf evergreen close to 20 years ago and I’m still as impressed with it today as I was during that first encounter. I’ll call it an encounter because it wasn’t the looks of this plant that first caught my attention, but it was the wonderful fragrance that swept me off of my feet in the middle of our winter.

Dwarf sweet box is a member of the boxwood family and is native to Southeast Asia. It is a choice groundcover that provides interest in the garden throughout the year with attractive dark green foliage and tiny white flowers that give a wonderful early season fragrance. The small dark blue berries are rather insignificant, but ironically the Latin name Sarcococca comes from a word meaning ‘fleshy berry’ in Greek. This makes me think that the botanists didn’t pay too much attention to this plant when they chose its name.

This is a tough little plant suited for almost all garden conditions with the exception of fully exposed, hot, sunny locations. It can grow in difficult shady locations and only requires additional water during periods of prolonged drought. The plant spreads slowly by rhizomes and can easily be divided or grown from seed.

resized CamelliaCamellia

Camellias are one of the most admired flowering evergreen shrubs that we grow in the milder parts of North America. Native to Japan, China and many areas of Southeast Asia, this plant was named after a Jesuit priest by the name of Georg Joseph Kamel (translated Camellus in Latin) who ironically had nothing to do with introducing it to the west.

Camellias have a fascinating history as they were cultivated and treasured for centuries before any Europeans were even aware of their existence. There are a multitude of cultivated garden varieties available today, many of them originating from the common camellia (Camellia japonica). The tea plant (Camellia sinensis) is obviously well known, but is not often used in the landscape. Flower colour ranges from shades of pink, red and yellow and also white, with variations of this theme that include spotted or variegated petals.

We like to use camellias in groupings or as individual specimens and prefer to grow them in a somewhat protected location as the blooms are quite delicate and get damaged easily with a heavy rain. Well drained, humus-rich soil is preferred, as is an adequate supply of moisture during dry periods in the garden.

Daffodil        Narcissus      

Daffodils are part of the Amaryllis family and are one of the most important genera of horticultural bulb plants in the world. Daffodils can be found growing naturally in a diverse range of areas, from North Africa to Europe, Japan, China and western Asia.

Daffodils have been cultivated as a garden plant for centuries and references have been made to them in Greek literature well before the birth of Christ.

One of the reasons that daffodils often don’t get the attention they deserve is that most people only think of them as pretty yellow spring flowers. What they don’t know is that there are literally thousands of varieties that can range in colour from various shades of yellow, gold, pink, orange, white and green, with some varieties having a combination of colours on the same plant. Flowers consist of a corona (trumpet) and petals (perianth). Flower sizes and shapes are very diverse, with some varieties having flowers up to 10cm diameter (I’ve read 13.5 cm, but have never seen it!), whereas others have delicate and graceful flowers of no more than 1cm. I haven’t even touched on the fact that you can get double-flowering varieties or varieties with split coronas, and the fact that there are some wonderful fragrant varieties as well.

Daffodils are easy to grow and are great to use in garden borders, containers or as a naturalising bulb. They prefer to be planted in a sunny or partly sunny location in well-drained soil.


One of the most brilliant displays of colour in the early spring garden is provided by a tough little plant known as the crocus. In the wild, crocuses are native to the Mediterranean/Asia minor region and are even found as far east as Afghanistan – so you know that they must be pretty tough! Crocuses grow from relatively tiny corms (that survive for only one season) and the plants spend a lot of time and energy producing new corms so they can bloom the following year.

Probably the best-known spring-flowering crocus varieties are the larger, more colourful Dutch crocuses that are hybrids and selections of Crocus vernus. However, there are over 75 species of crocus in the wild, with a couple of dozen of these varieties available to keen gardeners who are willing to take some time to seek them out. These other crocus species are typically smaller, but are equally as beautiful as their more popular Dutch cousins. I am quite fond of Crocus tommasinianus, which is an extremely durable, self- sowing (some might say weedy!) naturalising plant and is the first of the crocuses to bloom in our garden.

Crocus hybrids are easy to grow, but most other species will also do well if planted in a well-drained (even gritty) location with at least partial sun exposure. Crocus look best when planted in small or large groupings and in the right conditions they can be quite effective planted in informal lawns.

Pissard plum/cherry plum        Prunus cerasifera ‘Pissardii’ 

The showy Pissard plum is often regarded as one of the finest of the flowering plum trees. This decorative tree is from the genus Prunus (belonging to the rose family), which also includes almonds, apricots, cherries, nectarines and peaches.

This tree is a favorite of ours as it signals the arrival of spring and adds interest to the landscape throughout the year. Growing up to a height of 7.5m with a round head of equal size, this tree is striking with its pinkish white blossoms that typically open before the onset of reddish purple foliage. In order to maximise flowering and obtain the darkest foliage, a sunny location is preferred. The purple fruit is edible, but for some locations it is seen as a drawback as the fallen fruit can create quite a mess.

These hardy trees are native to western Asia and the Caucasus region and were first discovered in 1880 by M. Pissard who, at the time, was the head gardener to the Shah of Persia (Iran). Pissard sent some of the seed home to France where this unique tree gained immediate popularity. Interestingly enough, the original trees had pure white flowers and dark foliage, but through the years a wide variation in both flower and foliage colours has developed. In recent years I have found it almost impossible to find a white-flowering form.

These trees are easy to grow and, as with all rose family members, they prefer to be planted in a well-drained location. Almost any soil type is okay and some of the trees at the Gardens are doing quite well planted in a clay loam.

Flowering cherry              Prunus serrulata, Prunus subhirtella, Prunus yedoensis,                    

It would be hard to argue the fact that ornamental cherries are the most spectacular of all spring-flowering trees. Cherries are well known for providing an infusion of colour in the spring garden with a profusion of blossoms that come in a magnificent range of colours.

Cherries have been cultivated and celebrated in Japan for centuries, where they hold a special place in the hearts and minds of its citizens. In Japan the arrival of the cherry blossoms each year symbolises a time of hope and renewal and are so keenly anticipated there are daily news reports as to where there have been new sightings. This phenomenon of viewing cherries – called hanami – is typically accompanied by picnics and parties which are held to further enhance the experience.

There are shapes and sizes of cherry trees to suit most garden sites, but most prefer being planted in a sunny location with a decent well-drained soil. We have found that cherries are quite adaptable and are not too particular about the soil conditions they are planted in, but good drainage is important. In the spring garden, cherry trees work very well when planted together with rhododendrons and azaleas, as they provide the dappled light these plants prefer and bloom in unison to produce multiple layers of colour.

resized RhododendronRhododendron

Rhododendrons are an obvious choice as a preferred plant in the spring garden. The remarkable diversity of these plants is almost unbelievable, as there are thousands of varieties ranging in sizes from mat-forming midgets 5cm tall to towering trees that reach nearly 30 meters in height. In a nutshell, rhododendrons (which also include azaleas as a subgenus) are a fascinating, complex group of attractive and useful garden plants.

Although primarily known as evergreen plants, there are also many deciduous varieties available. Flower colours almost run through the full colour spectrum from clear, soft yellow to chartreuse and orange; from pale pink and lavender to magenta, as well as tones that are nearly blue. There are also red and white flowering varieties as well as flowers that are decorated with colourful spots or blotches. The size of the flowers is almost as diverse, with tiny blossoms of less than 1cm in diameter to massive blossoms more than 15cm across. I almost forgot to mention fragrance – yes, there are many species that are blessed with wonderful fragrance as well.

Rhododendrons are relatively easy to grow as long as certain considerations are taken into account. The number one consideration is soil. They prefer acidic, loamy soil with suitable drainage, but make sure they don’t dry out completely. In general, rhododendrons prefer to be sheltered from harsh winds and harsh sunlight – filtered light is generally preferred. The exception of the dwarf varieties, which do better in the sun and make nice specimens for rock gardens.

Images courtesy of Butchart Gardens.

Visit the Butchart Gardens’ official website here.


About the Author – Rick Los
Rick is a trained landscape designer but has worked in every aspect of the horticultural industry. For the past 16 years, Rick has held the position of director of horticulture at Butchart Gardens, Canada.

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