The Mountain Gardener: Flowering shrubs brighten early spring
by Jan Nelson
Apr 04, 2013 | 2351 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A flowering ceanothus shrub. Courtesy photo
A flowering ceanothus shrub. Courtesy photo
A rhododendron occidentale shrub. Courtesy photo
A rhododendron occidentale shrub. Courtesy photo
A loropetalum chinense shrub. Courtesy photo
A loropetalum chinense shrub. Courtesy photo

In the spring, we are surrounded by flowers of every color. It's our reward after the winter.

My heart goes out to those gardeners in other parts of the country where snow still covers their perennial beds. The availability of winter sports goes only so far as consolation for all that white stuff.

I've lived along the coasts of California my whole life, and personally, I'd rather be sitting out in my garden enjoying the birds as they gather nesting material than planning the summer garden on paper.

But I digress. Early spring-flowering shrubs are getting my attention these days, and I have a few varieties in mind that you'll want in your garden, too.


Ceanothus for all

There's a ceanothus for every garden. You can't have too many of these workhorses in the landscape. They range from groundcover types for erosion control to shrubs for screens and accents.

A new variety I've recently learned about from my friend and fellow Press-Banner columnist Colly Gruczelak is called Celestial Blue. She planted several two years ago from four-inch mail order sleeves, and now they are 3 feet tall and 4 feet wide.

In her sandy garden, home to her personal deer population, the flowers look like blueberry sherbet.

This medium shrub has a light fragrance, described as grape tart, and acts as a good screen or accent. This cultivar is probably a hybrid of Julia Phelps and Concha. A horticultural cultivar is simply a plant variety that's been selected specifically for gardens.

Celestial Blue flowers nine months each year, but especially in the summer, when it explodes with rich, purplish blue flowers.

Ceanothus plants provide excellent habitat for birds and insects. They are good for attracting bee and fly pollinators and are the larval host plants for the beautiful ceanothus silk moth. And ceanothus seed is readily eaten by many local birds.

Even a deer-resistant plant like ceanothus may have its tasty new growth tip-pruned in spring and summer. Think of this as nature’s way of producing a well-shaped shrub, dense and compact.

Planting a ceanothus is an important step to attracting more birds and wildlife to your garden.


Add fragrance with azaleas

Want even more fragrance in your early spring garden? Plant a Western azalea, the common name for Rhododendron occidentale.

One of our most beautiful native shrubs in the Coast Ranges, it grows also on the western side of the Cascades and Sierra Nevadas.

Western azaleas were described in writings by explorers in western North America in the 1800s. The plant contributed to the development of deciduous hybrid azaleas in Great Britain, such as the Exbury azalea.

If you're out hiking, you'll know you are near a stand of these excellent shrubs by the sweet and spicy clove scent reminiscent of cottage pinks and carnations.

Western azaleas are tolerant of our native serpentine soils, which are high in iron and magnesium. Like many western shrubs, they have the capacity to resprout from the ground if the top is destroyed by fire, as long as the root system remains intact.

To grow Western azaleas in the garden, provide routine moisture and keep the roots cool by shading the root zone with deep mulch. Protect them from hot afternoon sun.

Also, to prevent late-summer mildew, provide air circulation by growing Western azaleas in open areas, not crowded among understory plantings or in dead-air spaces under eves.

Give this lovely native shrub a try. It's a wonderful addition to the garden. You can visit some of them in Henry Cowell and Big Basin state parks to see them in person this spring.


A few more favorites

My other favorite early spring-blooming shrubs are lily-of-the-valley shrubs. I especially like a two-tone, dark rose variety called Dorothy Wyckoff, although those with pure white flowers are spectacular in the garden, too.

The white flowers of fringe flower (Loropetalum chinense) are even showier than its pink-flowering relatives.

Add a graceful Kerria japonica with double butter-yellow flowers to your landscape, too. Your spring garden will be a rainbow of color.

- Jan Nelson, a landscape designer and California certified nursery professional, will answer questions about gardening in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Email her at or visit to view past columns and pictures.

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