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Forsythia: Retina-searing though it may be, I dare you not to love forsythia in spring. It's not my favorite by a long shot, but this time of year, it's hard to beat. In addition to its bodacious gold, forsythia (USDA Hardiness Zones 5-9) grows just about anywhere, looks great en masse, and makes a perfect informal screen or hedge at 4-8 ft. tall and wide. Its cons: It grows to monstrous proportions in a few short years, and beyond spring, it's a super snooze.
Plant forsythia with space to fill, where it can grow naturally into its vase shape. When it gets big, pruning — especially into formal shapes — is a fool's errand. If you're looking for excitement beyond spring, seek out cultivars with exciting variegated foliage, such as gold-veined 'Kumson'.
Spike winter hazel: Forsythia's bold gold makes a statement for sure, and maybe it's my nature to relate good things back to food, but when I seek out yellow, I look for pale, buttery hues the likes of winter hazel (Corylopsis spicata, Zones 5-8). It blooms March to April here in Zone 6, around the same time as forsythia, and prefers light shade to part shade and average garden soil.
Winter hazel grows at an amiable pace (4-8 ft. tall, 8-10 ft. wide), a better maintenance choice for designers in search of shrubs that don't need to be fended off with a whip and a chair. (Ahem, forsythia.) Its broad leaves are texturally interesting, but try fabulous cultivar 'Golden Spring', whose foliage emerges reddish, and quickly turns to a luminous chartreuse that lasts throughout the growing season.
'Arnold Promise' witch hazel: If you want to start spring even earlier, various witch hazels bloom from fall and all through winter into spring. My favorite, and the first shrub to bloom in my garden (late February or March) is 'Arnold Promise' (Zones 5-8), a standout with the biggest, brightest flowers of any witch hazel I've seen, and man, they smell amazing.
'Arnold Promise' witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia 'Arnold Promise') is billed as a plant for full sun to part shade and average to moist soil — mine handles full shade in dry soil under trees like a champ, though they've grown more slowly for it. These elegant vase-shaped shrubs grow 12-15 ft. tall and wide in time, and as an added bonus, their leaves turn a stunning school bus yellow in fall.
See another witch hazel
Cornelian cherry dogwood: If it's a small tree you're looking for, look no further than cornelian cherry (Cornus mas, Zones 4-8). Don't let its name fool you — this cherry is a dogwood, and has many of the fine attributes of that genus.
Unlike the dogwood you may know, cornelian cherry blooms earlier in spring (March in Zone 6), in its own tiny galaxy of brilliant yellow flowers. Later on in the summer, after it's leafed out, red fruits appear where the flowers were, much to the delight of birds. Fall leaf color is a respectable red. Cornelian cherry grows 15-20 feet tall and wide, in full sun to part shade and average garden soil, and easily pruned back to shrubbier proportions for hedge or screen.
Winter jasmine: For that same profusion of spring yellow on a slightly smaller scale, winter jasmine is hard to beat. This tough little shrub makes a great wiry textural accent with glossy green leaves, and green stems in the off-season, a perfect foil to its cheery, starry flowers in March or April.
Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum, Zones 6-10), does double duty as a trailing groundcover. Though it is a jasmine, its flowers aren't fragrant, but it makes up for that in spades with color. This easy, sprawling, spreading little shrub usually tops out at 4 feet, and will spread to around that much or more. Give it full sun to part shade, and it's happy.
Carolina jessamine: For yellow spring flowers in a vine, this native is a southern classic. Caroline jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens, Zones 7-10) blooms anytime from February to April, depending on the climate.
This easy-to-grow vine is a native of the Southeastern U.S. and grows more than 12 feet high, with a spread about half that. It loves full sun and will tolerate a degree of drought. Cultivar 'Margarita' is hardy to Zone 6. As pretty as it is, all parts of jessamine are poisonous, so be wary of kids and pets.
Species tulips: Let's not forget the little guys! Daffodils are the spring yellow besides forsythia everyone thinks of, but what about species tulips? These mini-tulips are tough, and while their better-known tall cousins may only bloom for a year or two, these grow to form colonies and return reliably year after year.
In yellows, cultivars of Tulipa batalinii (Zones 4-9) are standouts. 'Bright Gem' is the easiest to find, and has the added cachet of powder blue foliage. 'Yellow Jewel' and 'Apricot Jewel' are two others. All bloom on short stems, 10 inches or less, pale yellow in April. Because these bulbs' parent hails from desert climes, another plus is their love of dry gardens with fast-draining soil and little summer water. Give these tulips full sun.
Winter aconite: Last but certainly not least is a golden spring ephemeral — meaning a plant that puts on a showstopping performance in spring, then goes dormant once the heat of summer sets in.
That plant is winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis, Zones 3-7). The little ephemeral that could, its golden globes may just push their way through snow if they have to, anytime from March through April. Its yellow buttercups top out around 4 inches, and seem lit from within. Like many ephemerals, winter aconite makes an ideal subject for spaces near deciduous trees that leaf out after it blooms, shading the soil at their roots and keeping it cooler. Small trees would be best, as this particular plant prefers soil that doesn't get too terribly dry.
This spring, amidst the flurry of shell pinks and baby blues, don't forget to make room for yellow! It's guaranteed to lift the spirits of whatever garden you're designing — in spring, and indeed, all throughout the year.
Great design trees:
Bald Cypress | Chinese Witch Hazel | Japanese Maple | Manzanita | Persian Ironwood
Smoke Tree | Tree Aloe
Great design plants:
Redtwig Dogwood | Hens-and-Chicks | Toyon | Black Mondo Grass | Feather Reed Grass
New Zealand Wind Grass | Blue Chalk Sticks
Great design flowers:
Catmint | Golden Creeping Jenny | Pacific Coast Iris | Red Kangaroo Paw | Sally Holmes Rose
Slipper Plant | Snake Flower