Flowering Trees for Springtime Color and Memories

by Tom Spencer / Soul of the Garden

Spring will soon be little more than a memory, a thousand shades of green and a profusion of unexpected flowers fading into the brown oblivion of another Texas summer. Spring just doesn't last long enough in Central Texas to satisfy the longings of the "inner" gardener. On occasion, we seem to skip spring altogether and slide headlong into an early heat wave that wilts our garden dreams. Despite their brevity, our springs can be glorious- especially when they first arrive. I always remember the first bluebonnets of the season and the fragrance of the Mexican plums, they are a celebration of new life and hope.

Before this spring takes that inevitable turn to a Texas summer, it is worth looking back to those first hopeful days when the redbuds were blooming and the plums were scenting the air. These plants are among the harbingers of spring, they take us by surprise, and get our gardening chlorophyll flowing.

I have always loved the flowering trees that announce the season, no matter how fleeting their appearance may be. They pop into view among the still bare branches of the neighborhood, and then retreat back into anonymity as the heat approaches. Later in the year, these wonderful plants may not be available in our nurseries, my advice is to plant them now so that you can add to the springtime symphony next year.

I think that the redbud has to be Austin's signature springtime tree. They come into bloom in February and last well into March, one of the more prolonged blooming cycles of the spring flowering trees. Redbuds grow best in full sun, but can perform well in partly shaded sites. Eastern redbud is the variety that is most commonly available in chain stores, my advice is to skip over those in favor of the "Texas" redbud, this is a more drought tolerant form with glossier leaves and pink flowers. The Mexican redbud is even more drought tolerant, but is a much smaller tree.

There are many forms of redbud available and it is worth looking for some of the more unusual varieties. My favorites among these are the "Oklahoma" redbud, which has intense purple blooms, and "Whitebud". Both of these forms tend to come from grafted plants, so be sure to examine the trunk to check the quality of the graft. If it appears seamless, the plant will tend to perform better.

The ornamental peaches are both revered and reviled. A few years ago, at the height of the native plant movement, flowering peaches were held up for special ridicule. Still, when the ornamental peaches bloom along the shores of Town Lake, they wow the crowds. This is particularly true of the "Peppermint" variety with its pink, white, and striped double blooms. It may be easy to poke fun of a peppermint peach, but they are as close to a cherry blossom as we are likely to encounter in Central Texas. They are belittled, in part, because they are relatively short-lived trees. But, hey, most fruit trees are short-lived. I say get over it. Another peach that you may want to try for both its flower and fruit is "Red Baron." This showy plant is well adapted to our milder winters and has a beautiful bright red bloom.

A native alternative to the flowering peaches is Mexican plum. This is a tough little tree with deeply fragrant white blooms. In my former garden, I had several Mexican plums that would perfume our entire block when they were in flower. They can produce a prodigious amount of small plums that are, for all intents and purposes, inedible- so be prepared for hundreds of little plum trees to sprout up where the fruit has fallen down. Weeding them out is a simple chore when the ground is moist, but the chore-phobic may want to take note.

Mexican Buckeye is another very worthy native bloomer. This small tree has pink blooms that are often mistaken for redbud at a distance. Up close, they resemble miniature orchids, very striking. I'd recommend planting this multi-trunked tree near a garden path so that visitors can admire the blooms in detail. This versatile tree performs well in situations ranging from full sun to shade. Be sure to provide plenty of mulch in the sun however, since it will struggle a bit until it grows enough to shade its own root zone.

My all time favorite harbingers of spring are the deciduous magnolias. Commonly known as "saucer" or "star" magnolias, these spectacular plants provide a true blaze of color in the earliest days of spring. Their immense blooms range from white to royal purple, and their lemony fragrance is divine. These are plants that need to be babied in Austin, requiring rich moist soils and partly shaded sites. I have been debating with myself over whether I should plant one in my new garden. They really are a stretch, and the flowers last only for one week, and yet, what better symbol of a Texas spring than a bigger than life flower that is here and gone?

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