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Cover Story Plant Life On Fitness Taste Northwest Living Now & Then

Plant Life
The Shrubs Of Spring
Soft shades and full fragrance signal the season's freshness
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A double-flowered mock orange mingles with the white-trimmed perennial Scrophularia auriculata 'Variegata' in the wild border at the back of the author's garden.
While the bright blaze of rhododendrons and azaleas may characterize Northwest springtimes, so many other flowering shrubs scent the season that it's a shame to confine yourself to the obvious choices.

I appreciate shrubs for their easy-care ways of growing fairly slowly while providing structure and shape for the garden without imposing a lot of shade or roots. They don't need much maintenance besides an annual fertilizing and a little pruning. The latter happens anyway when we cut armfuls of blooming boughs to bring into the house. After all, what is springtime without sweet-smelling lilacs and mock orange? You can always buy tulips and daffodils in the shops, but branches of viburnum and quince need to come out of your own, or a generous neighbor's, garden.

It was only a few weeks ago that, for the first time this year, I could cut enough from the garden to fill the house with arrangements, and then it was finely flowered corylopsis, contorted hazelnut trimmed with catkins, and fat puffs of pussy willows on bare branches. Now all of a sudden flowers are coating the branches and perfuming the house. And with the chilly, damp weather we've had all through June the last couple of years, bringing the garden inside is one of the best ways to enjoy the fresh season.

Mark Twain commented that the weather gets through more business in spring than in any other season, and it's true that changeability is the only constant this time of year. But I can't agree with T.S. Eliot that April is the cruelest month, because despite the promise it never quite fulfills, this month begins the glorious and dependable procession of one shrub after another leafing out and coming into bloom.

Sturdy Japanese quince (Chaenomeles superba) blooms early with coral or pure-white cup-shaped flowers on bare branches that linger on while bronze new foliage unfolds to glossy green leaves. Quince, like so many old-fashioned shrubs, is a bit gangly and bare in habit, so it looks best at the back of the border or espaliered against a wall. The spiny branches create graceful Asian lines when cut and arranged in a low bowl.

Rosemary officinalis brings both handsome, aromatic foliage and blue flowers to the spring garden, either growing spikily upright or cascading over rockeries and walls. Plant in full sun with good drainage (close to the kitchen door is good) and remember that the palest blue flowers appear on the hardiest plants.
Illustration Now In Bloom
Primula 'Guinevere' is a vigorous primrose with soft-pink petals ideal for skirting spring-blooming shrubs. The flower is warmed with a yellow center, and the evergreen foliage is a rich shade of bronze. Don't be deceived by its pastel prettiness, for 'Guinevere' was chosen as a 2003 Great Plant Pick because it's a robust long bloomer, perfectly capable of standing up to the extremes of April weather.
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Two of the most fragrant viburnums bloom early. The Korean spice viburnum (V. carlesii) has pink buds opening to white flower clusters and an especially enticing spicy-sweet scent. Viburnum x burkwoodii is a large, open shrub that could define April with its pink-tinged flowers and heady perfume.

I'm always hopeful that the lilacs will open for Easter, and some years they come close. Syringa vulgaris is the common lilac, beloved for its full fragrance and supremely beautiful flowers ranging from pure white through all the shades of pink, lavender and deep, rich purple. No other flower seems so perfectly designed for bouquets to fill a room with scent. I can't imagine a greater gardening happiness than cutting armloads of lilacs, sticking them in tall, glass vases and throwing open the windows on one of the first warm afternoons.

The hummingbird-attracting pink flowers of weigela seem always to have inhabited May gardens. New varieties have flashy foliage, such as W. florida 'Variegata' with cool cream trimming, or that blatant W. 'Rubidor' with red flowers and golden leaves.

Summer is nearly here when mock orange opens its supremely fragrant, snowy white flowers. Philadelphus coronarius 'Aureus' displays its creamy flowers against bright golden foliage, and the large flowers of 'Belle Etoile' are blotched in mauve. P. 'Avalanche,' bred in 1896, is a quintessential version of mock orange, covered with flowers and growing to about 5 feet. P. 'Buckley's Quill' has double flowers that look like shooting stars; P. coronarius 'Variegatus' has leaves trimmed in white to match the flowers.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is

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