Growbag Blog

10 spring shrubs to melt your heart

Have you got a favourite spring shrub?  We bet you have.  Is there one that makes you feel like bursting into song when the early May sunshine suddenly spotlights it? We’ve got ten ideas for you on the subject (though of course we are hoping that Laura will not be tempted to burst into song any time soon……….) 

  1. 1. I’m up first this week and my first choice is Philadelphus coronarius ‘Aureus’.  This mock orange simply looks like it’s always a sunny day in the garden!  The leaves are a glowing golden-yellow in spring, though they fade to a mid-green by the end of summer.  The white May/June flowers are as deliciously scented as on the green version of P. coronarius.  
Philadelphus coronarius ‘Aureus’ looks like the sun is on it ALL THE TiME!

It is really easy to grow (so Laura won’t bother with it, I expect, but Caroline will cheer).  And it’s a great plant for light shade (which is where it looks best anyway). If you plant it in a hot, sunny spot you run the risk of having the delicate leaves scorched and browned.  

2. Next, I’ve chosen tree peonies, whose blooms are ABSURDLY over-the-top but totally irresistible. Think seriously wacky tulips the size of dinner plates loaded with intense colour and pizazz on a bush about 5 x 5 feet round (1.8 x 1.8m). P. rockii is drop-dead elegant, but when my huge shocking purple one opens its wonderful flowers, it’s a Red Letter Day round here! The blooms only last a week or so, but they’re worth it, and the leaves are lovely anyway.

A tree peony bud poised for the fantastic show……..

3. I find lilacs a bit boring on the whole and I’m not keen on their habit of retaining their dead flowers (a tendency they share with camellias, unfortunately).  But there is a much more refined one called Lilac meyeri ‘Palibin’ or ‘Palibiana’, which comes from Korea and is enchantingly dainty in all its parts.  

Lilac meyeri ‘Palibin’ – so dainty, so pretty, so scented, and so unlike other lilacs.

Its May lilac-pink flowers are sweetly fragrant, and it only grows to about 5’  (1.5 -1.8m), so it won’t take over the garden.  Even better, it will have spasmodic flowers over the summer and may well have another flush of them in September.


It’s true – I am completely tone deaf but don’t worry as I definitely won’t be singing the praises of Elaine’s first choice anyway – the preternaturally yellow leaves on a normally dark green shrub always just make it look rather ill to me, and Elaine’s definitely practising some one-upmanship with her tree peony, but I have to admit that lilac looks a winner, doesn’t it?

4. I’d like to bring a few lesser known spring shrubs to the table and I can’t recommend Fothergilla too highly. It’s such a neat little shrub with creamy coloured lantern flowers in spring, and then terrific colour in autumn. I don’t know if mine is the dwarf species Fothergilla gardenii or just a slow growing version of the standard species Fothergilla major, final height being the only distinction between them (at this point there will be a lot of tutting from Elaine about the absence of a garden diary in my life). I rather hope its the former, which only grows to about 2 foot high so is very easy to pop in any little gap you might have.

Smart little bottlebrush flowers in late spring
Then some of the best autumn colour you’ll ever have in your garden

5. Next up is a simply divine shrub/small tree that I fell in love with on Chris Beardshaw’s Chelsea Garden back in 2019. It’s Aesculus x mutabilis ‘Penduliflora’

Aesculus mutabilis ‘Penduliflora’
I actually heard this little American hybrid chestnut tree, Aesculus x mutabilis ‘Penduliflora’ before I saw as it was being completely mobbed by happy bees

I knew then and there that I had to have one, and have never regretted the investment as this beautiful little tree performs just as well in my Sussex garden as it did on Chelsea embankment and seems as popular with country bees as city ones.

Aesculus x mutabilis ‘Penduliflora’
Aesculus x mutabilis ‘Penduliflora’ – every bit as gorgeous in my garden as it was at Chelsea

6. My next choice is a tough campaigner from the bramble family, Rubus spectabilis ‘Olympic Double’, which has the most unexpected double scarlet flowers that could easily be mistaken for very early button roses. Having bramble in its genes means it takes spreading quite seriously, and will sucker happily if given space. So maybe best tucked away on a boundary somewhere where its early spring flowers will be a delightful surprise .

Rubus spectabilis ‘Olympic Double’
You’d be forgiven for mistaking these sweet little flowers on Rubus ‘Olympic Double’ for early button roses

7. Finally a new discovery! Although we can grow rhododendrons in our garden, we don’t really have the space or the setting to have many, but I’m definitely making room for this one. I grew it from a cutting given to me from an aunt of Louise’s some five years ago, not even knowing it was a rhodo. But then it started flowering very early each spring in the prettiest shade of yellow, and research proved it to be Rhododenron lutescens

Rhododendron lutescens
R. lutescens is an enchanting early flowering species rhododendron, with none of the heaviness of some of the later hybrids.

Apparently R.lutescens is hardy (🤞) so it’s come out of its pot this spring and into the garden, screening another much more common yellow rhododendron Azalea luteum, whose scent is magnificent but whose flowers are a much tackier shade of yellow, more suited to Caroline’s garden than mine.

I’d like to applaud Laura’s plucky tenacity, but really I’m just thinking ‘duh’. I don’t know how many shrubs she’s lost to the cold this winter but still she yearns for hard-to-grow, diva shrubs. Didn’t Einstein have an opinion on this type of behaviour regarding the definition of insanity?

Here in the ‘Garden of Hard Knocks’ aka the Scottish Highlands, we’ve neither the money nor the foolhardiness to be growing anything other than your sturdy stalwarts.

8. Now I agree that because it only flowers on old wood, the undisciplined forsythia can look a bit ‘meh’ – it’s only merit being its 100% willingness to flower. But if you prune it back after flowering, you can confidently expect a satisfyingly solid yellow block next spring, which gives the impression you’re on top of your garden.

Fellow northern gardeners, don’t you agree? A forsythia will NOT let you down.

If you chop it back efficiently forsythia looks satisfyingly as if you meant to create a yellow lego brick in your garden.

9. Ribes Sanguineum – flowering blackcurrant. Up here we are generally a good few weeks behind everyone else in the UK so the enthusiasm with which this shrub sets about coming into leaf in late February, is very encouraging. I know the classier Ribes ‘white icicle’ is now the favoured variety among the horticultural elite, but frankly with ice and sleet still appearing in our forecasts, I’ll stick with this warm-pink bee-magnet. Please don’t buy one – If you see one growing, there’ll be a seedling close-by!

No fleece required for this wherever you live in the UK – the lovely flowering blackcurrant!

10. Laura predicted I would follow up on my first two choices with “that scruffy shrub Kerria japonica” (bachelor’s buttons). I know, I know, she’s got a nerve being so dismissive of this cheerily ubiquitous shrub from our parents’ era. 

But actually I’m signing off with this marvellous shrub Viburnum rhyditophyllum also known as ‘wrinkled viburnum’…. immediately we have much in common. It has furry evergreen leaves, generous flowerheads and despite being as hardy as anything, its suede brown shoots bring a welcome ‘wow factor’ to our wintery Spring up here!

Although its shoots have a teddy bear look to them, Viburnum rhyditophyllum generally brings a bit of class to my otherwise embattled spring garden (it was minus 4 on Tuesday night)

Have you got a favourite spring shrub we haven’t mentioned? Please do write in and tell us – we’d love to add more ideas to our list.

NB Louises plant of the moment is a beautifully understated cottage garden classic, click on the box below to find out what it is.

NNB It’s a job to keep up with the weeding at this time of the year so we’re giving you a helping hand with free Post and Packing on our block paving knife this weekend

NNNB If you’re not already a subscriber and you’d like a bit more gardening chitchat from the3growbags, please type your email address here and we’ll send you a new post every Saturday morning.

By the3growbags

We're three sisters who love gardening, plants and even the science of horticulture but we're not all experts. We'd love everyone even remotely interested in their gardens to be part of our blogsite.

4 replies on “10 spring shrubs to melt your heart”

Hello Barbara – this is a fantastic article and I’m thinking of printing off the table of comparisons between japonica and x williamsii camellias and pinning it to my kitchen noticeboard – such a clear helpful list of pros and cons of the two species. Thank you!
Best wishes Laura
PS We’re going to RHS Wisley tomorrow and I’m going to walk around Battleston Hill very carefully looking at the names of all the camellias to check which ones they are…

A Kerria Japonica – the variegated kind – is currently lighting up a shady, dry corner of my garden with its pretty leaves and exuberant yellow flowers on attractively arching stems. It asks for nothing, is totally reliable, and attracts compliments and questions every spring. Old fashioned it may be but don’t knock it.

Lisa so pleased you gave this vote of confidence for Kerria Japonica. Caroline here and I completely agree – it’s a wonderfully dependable and merry shrub that should be in every garden. Don’t pay any attention to Laura. I don’t.

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