In ranking flowering trees and shrubs, I have given highest rank to specimens that do the best job at performing the greatest variety of functions, as mentioned on Page 2. While Eastern redbud trees (Cercis canadensis) merit only an intermediate rank based on such criteria, they are nonetheless singularly impressive spring performers. Their performance at this time of year is powerful enough to trump other considerations and reserve a spot for them on my list.
Eastern redbud trees (sometimes misspelled as "red bud") bear bright pinkish-purple flowers all along their bare spring branches. Eastern redbud trees are among the few flowering trees that tolerate shade. Other trees and shrubs may match the color of its blooms, but redbud's chief asset is its gracefulness, as its flowers precede the arrival of obstructing foliage. As redbuds come into bloom, their limbs appear to grow "hair" -- a very colorful hair. Eastern redbud trees grow to be 20'-30' high and spread 20'-30'. The fall foliage of redbuds is an inconsistent yellow.
Star magnolia (Magnolia stellata) precedes saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangiana) in blooming. But with its large, cup-shaped flowers, the saucer is still considered an early bloomer and is well worth waiting for. Flowers are rose to purple outside, with a soft, white interior. This tree reaches 20'-30' in height, and its spread is also 20'-30'. For more, please consult the following full articles:
'Sunrise' forsythia "has flower buds which are reputedly able to withstand minus 20 F temperatures," according to the Missouri Botanical Garden, even though its overall cold-hardiness rating is no greater than that of other forsythia shrubs. Forsythia x intermedia 'Sunrise' reaches a mature height of only about 6 feet tall, making it a more compact bush than some of the other popular forsythia shrubs.
Spring wouldn't be spring in my landscaping without the vibrant yellow flowers of forsythia, one of the earliest-blooming shrubs. And in case even forsythia's early bloom time doesn't come soon enough for you, you can force the flowers.
'Tor' spirea also makes my list of the best shrubs for fall color. Its botanical name is Spiraea betulifolia 'Tor'. This spirea is fairly compact, maturing at about 3 feet tall by 3 feet wide. Wearing dark green leaves in summer, its fall-fashion sense makes it opt for a red color in autumn. In mid-spring to late spring 'Tor' spirea produces white flowers that are small but grouped in showy clusters.
Weigela florida is another old-time favorite that rewards growers with a fine springtime flower show. But the 'Variegata' cultivar, with its variegated leaves, is an improvement in some ways, as it can be appreciated long after the flowers have gone by. It is a compact, rounded shrub (height 3'-5', spread 3'-5') with green leaves bordered by creamy white. This shrub's pink blossoms are really a bonus: its foliage alone makes it worth growing.
Pussy willows (Salix discolor) are a native North American plant and another early-blooming favorite for forcing. Since pussy willow is a wetland plant in the wild, it would obviously be an ideal occupant for any areas of your landscape that suffer from poor drainage. What, you don't have such a spot in your yard? Consider yourself lucky, as that means you won't need to install a French drain or undertake other such measures to cope with excess water. You'll simply have to be sure to furnish your pussy willow shrubs with artificial irrigation during dry periods.
'Redspire' callery pear (Pyrus calleryana 'Redspire') is a tree with abundant white flowers, whose glossy green leaves turn wine-red in autumn. This early bloomer is resistant to fire blight. The branching pattern tends to remain symmetrical. The pea-sized pear fruits are not messy in the lawn or garden, further promoting low maintenance. However, callery pears, generally speaking, are not the most stable of trees, being prone to wind damage.
But don't confuse low maintenance with no maintenance! It's always a good idea to winterize flowering shrubs. And whether you decide to plant flowering dogwood trees, Eastern redbud trees or any of the other flowering trees mentioned, don't forget to winterize young trees to protect them, as well, from the rigors of winter.