With the recent persistence of warm Missouri weather (especially at night), many of our garden plants are waking up nearly a month ahead of last year! In particular, non-native species who are not accustomed to our wild swings in temperature are beginning to bloom. Some even reached their peak before the first day of March. For many of us, this is a welcome early-season spectacle brightening an otherwise dreary time outdoors.
One of our area’s consistently early-blooming, non-native landscape plants is the star magnolia (Magnolia stellata). Each year, the star magnolia unfurls its many-tepaled, pure white flowers, releasing a perfume that is unmistakable this early in the season. Magnolia stellata blooms will continue to dazzle for nearly three weeks with a mild stretch of weather however, Missouri’s pendulum-swings in temperature tend to put a quick end to this otherwise spectacular display. Unopened flower buds will be safe from light freezes and often provide a surprise show after a frosty night has shriveled the star-like blossoms. Typically growing as a multi-trunked small tree, often to 20’ high and nearly as wide, the star magnolia can adapt to a wide variety of soils preferring full sun to part shade. The roots can be shallow and somewhat dense, so under-planting is often difficult. The very dense branching habit provides a thick mass of green leaves, and Magnolia stellata can be grown as a larger, more informal hedge. Established plants are drought-tolerant although, during their younger years, star magnolias prefer moist conditions.
Another East Asian, early bloomer in the landscape is the flowering quince (Chaenomeles speciosa). A large suckering shrub, the flowering quince bursts into a mass of scarlet-pink blooms typically in mid-to-late March. Blossoms emerge prior to the leaves showing bare stems covered with rounded, one to two-inch wide flowers and bright yellow anthers. The densely-branched, somewhat spiny Chaenomeles speciosa blooms on old wood, so frequent heavy pruning is unnecessary to allow for optimum flowering. In early summer, the flowers are followed by hard, speckled, yellow-green fruit, very tart in taste if eaten fresh, but excellent for cooking and making into jams, jellies, and preserves. Flowering quince can grow to ten feet high but is more often seven or eight feet. The suckering habit of this shrub can become a nuisance, so prompt removal of outward marching suckers is recommended. Once established, Chaenomeles speciosa is very drought tolerant and the best bloom is produced in full sun.
In addition to these two exotic plants, a series of native tree species within the same genus are blooming in these late days of winter. The sugar, silver, and red maples (Acer saccharum, Acer saccharinum, and Acer rubrum, respectively) are in or near full bloom. These trees provide a crucial early-nectar source for many of our native pollinators, which include a number of bees, flies, and the occasional butterfly waking from its winter hibernation (yes, some native butterflies hibernate in leaf litter!).
The maples native to Missouri may not be as astounding as the other plants discussed here, but they are beguiling in their own right, with unsuspecting flowers that – upon closer inspection – reveal a humble beauty of yellows, pinks, oranges and reds. Combined with the abundance of forage provided for our insect friends, the sugar, silver, and red maple are much more valuable landscape additions. Sugar maples and red maples tend to be best-suited for the home landscape, though both can be medium-sized trees to 40 feet tall. Sugar maple bark, peeling in large, thick plates, is a favorite home of bats who tuck away beneath the shedding bark during the daylight hours. Red maples are nearly unrivaled for fall color, turning a blazing red with shades of orange and yellow, though sugar maples are a close second with their blinding yellows and oranges. The silver maple is best reserved for the natural landscape, being weak-wooded and frequently shedding branches, with unremarkable fall color. All three maples are drought tolerant once established, but each will appreciate adequate water during their first season.
If you are interested in supporting pollinators with your garden or yard plantings, it is important to know that not all plants flowering in late winter/early spring are early nectar sources. Pollinators have adapted over time to the flora around them selecting one or a few species of plants on which they can feed. Some insects are so specialized, that they have developed unique feeding organs and/or appendages specifically for a narrow selection of plants. Most of our exotic introduced plant species produce flowers that are unfamiliar to our native pollinators and are thus useless to them as forage. A keen-eyed gardener may remark on the honey bees frequenting exotic plant species like the star magnolia, crocus, or flowering quince, but remember – honey bees are not native to the new world! An even keener-eyed gardener may say, “I’ve seen native bumble bees on these exotic plants!”. While most of our indigenous insect pollinators are not generalists and do not feed on non-indigenous plant species, bumbles bees are one of the exceptions.
Compiled by Cara L. Crocker