Sue Chuang takes a photo with her phone of a Japanese apricot, which is a relative to the blossoming cherry tree as seen at the U.S. National Arboretum. The peak bloom for cherry blossoms might still be a couple weeks away, but there is plenty of blooms to be found elsewhere in Washington. (2013 Photo by Matt McClain/For the Washington Post)

Winter tests everyone’s imagination. After weeks of below-freezing temperatures, it can be difficult to have faith that lush green foliage is lying hidden under a thick white blanket of snow and ice.

This winter has been especially cruel, because it packed a late punch: Just two weeks ago we were all wearing boots and navigating icy sidewalks. The gray sky was outdone in somberness only by the dirty snow pushed along the side of potholed roads.

We haven’t just been waiting for a warm-up — we’ve been waiting to return to outdoor life.

So, too, it seems, have Washington’s flowers, which are finally beginning to blossom. Although peak bloom for the cherry blossoms remains a few weeks away (the National Park Service predicts April 11-14), a bouquet of snowdrops, pint-size crocuses and colorful witch hazel is already brightening our landscape.

And it doesn’t matter whether your thumb is green, black or a shade in between — local gardens have done the work for you. All you need to do is head outside and appreciate nature in all its splendor.

Brookside Gardens

With 50 acres of green space, more than a dozen specialty gardens and indoor conservatories that are home to a host of tropical plants, Brookside Gardens in Wheaton has been a destination for nature lovers for more than 40 years.

Your search for early spring blooms should start in the aptly named Fragrance Garden, which has benches set under arbors that will eventually be draped in blossoming wisteria and roses. For now, it’s the perfect place to stop, sit and deeply inhale fresh scents of wintersweet, winter daphne and Japanese apricot.

Then head to the Winter Garden. Located next to the Children’s Garden (just follow the sounds of gleeful kids playing in the miniature schoolhouse), the garden is home to such plants as drifts of scilla, flowering quince, hellebores and more Japanese apricot.

• What to see inside: The conservatories, a year-round draw with rotating exhibits, are hosting a display of fragrant spring flowers through April 12. The ever-popular butterfly and caterpillar exhibit returns in the summer.

Linger a bit longer: A mile-long paved path winds around the gardens and is a nice way to stretch your legs. Also, the Woodland Walk, which spurs off the paved path, leads visitors to another worthy stop: the Brookside Nature Center.

The gardens are open daily, sunrise to sunset. Note: The visitor center parking lot is closed because of construction and there is limited parking near the conservatories. The visitor center is open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and the conservatories are open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
1500 Glenallan Ave., Wheaton. 301-962-1400. Free.

Winter daphne is one example of early bloomers in our region. (Alberto Cuadra/The Washington Post)

Green Spring Gardens

As soon as you step out of your car you will notice some of the plants that make Green Spring notable: witch hazel. The gardens are home to more than 100 selections of the flowering shrub, and many are planted along the edge of the parking lot in what has been dubbed the Long Border. The funky-shaped blooms with straplike petals add pops of yellow-gold to the landscape. Other colorful witch hazels abound throughout the garden.

A brick house built in 1784 serves as the centerpiece for the grounds. The Vista Garden in front of the house offers a south-facing slope with good drainage that is a perfect environment for irises, crocuses, daffodils and scilla. Behind the house, two star magnolias flank a stately saucer magnolia that is more than 50 years old and has bear’s foot hellebore growing around its roots.

A search for early spring blooms wouldn’t be complete without a walk in the Virginia Native Plant Garden, where such ephemeral wildflowers as bluebells and bloodroot blanket the ground.

What to see inside: The Glasshouse off the Horticulture Center is home to cacti, succulents, orchids and other plants that thrive in its warm conditions. The center also hosts rotating nature-themed art exhibits.

Linger a bit longer: Green Spring often hosts lectures and workshops. Coming up on March 29 is “Choice Flowering Trees for Spring,” a garden tour and discussion. $17, $15 Fairfax county residents.

The gardens are open from dawn to dusk. The Horticulture Center is open Monday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Sunday noon to 4:30 p.m.
4603 Green Spring Rd., Alexandria. 703-642-5173. . Free.

Crocuses, which come in a variety of colors, are already blooming at many area gardens. (Alberto Cuadra/The Washington Post)

Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens

Marjorie Merriweather Post made Hillwood her home for the area’s best two seasons — spring and fall. And when Post was in residence, hosting parties and entertaining the region’s fellow socialites, her gardens had to be just as decked out as she was. Hillwood pays homage to the cereal heiress, who died in 1973, by keeping the grounds full of fragrant and colorful flowers that thrive during spring and fall.

As you approach the back of the Georgian-style mansion from the visitor center, you are greeted with a purple-leaf plum tree and pearlbush around the motor court, just as Post’s guests would have been beginning in the late 1950s. The curving driveway to the original entrance is worth the walk to see the early bloomers — including wisteria, jasmine and flowering quince — that line it.

Post was known for her lavish parties. One of her most extravagant annual celebrations centered on the peak bloom of tulips on her lunar lawn. There are still plenty of tulips to be seen in mid-to-late-April.

One addition since Post’s death is the Adirondack building, inspired by her New York summer home. The landscaping around it is full of early-blooming wildflowers.

• What to see inside: Post was known to have one of the largest private collections of orchids in the world, and she would have them sent by jet to wherever she was staying. Hillwood continues to honor her with a display in the greenhouse through March.

• Linger a bit longer: Grab a bite at the cafe, which features menus inspired by current exhibits and edibles from the cutting garden. You can take your food to go and have a picnic — complimentary maps and blankets are available at the visitor center.

Tuesday through Sunday
10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 4155 Linnean Ave. NW. 202-686-8507. Suggested donation: $15, seniors $12, students $10, ages 6 to 10 $5, younger free.

Hellebores are another early bloomer popular in local gardens. (Alberto Cuadra/The Washington Post)

Historic London Town and Gardens

From its hilltop perch overlooking the South River, it’s easy to see why William Brown, a carpenter and tavern owner in the Colonial tobacco port and ferry crossing of London Town, invested all of his money into building a brick mansion on the site in 1760.

And although present-day London Town’s best feature is arguably its sweeping waterfront views, a walk around the 23 acres proves there is just as much beauty to be found in its gardens.

A good place to start is the Ornamental Gardens. One of the first heralds of spring is a large Japanese apricot that has eye-catching pink blooms and grows over part of the gardens’ sizable peony collection, which usually starts blooming in late April.

From there, follow the Spring Walk — lined with witch hazel, scilla, crocus and more — to the eight-acre Woodland Gardens. The meandering mile-long path goes by a colorful collection of blooming hellebores and a carpet of cotton-candy pink crocuses springing up under a glade of yet-to-bloom azaleas.

• What to see inside: The visitor center houses an exhibit about the history of London Town, including its time as a tobacco port and, later, an alms house. In addition to tours of Brown’s house, there is a living history area on the grounds that honors the town’s past with a depiction of life as it would have been for London Town’s Colonial residents.

• Linger a bit longer: The new sound and sensory garden aims to entertain the youngest visitors with three xylophones, nature discovery stations and logs and stumps to encourage climbing. Dogs are permitted on the grounds and picnickers are welcome in designated areas.

Wednesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and
Sunday noon to 4:30 p.m.
839 Londontown Rd.,
Edgewater, Md. 410-222-1919. . $10, seniors $9, ages 7 to 17 $5, younger free.

The Japanese apricot, an early herald of spring can be seen at Historic London Town and Gardens. (Alberto Cuadra/The Washington Post)

Smithsonian Gardens

The more than 40 acres of Smithsonian Gardens scattered throughout the Mall are meant to complement the museums they are near — the Heirloom and Victory gardens at the National Museum of American History, for example. Nowhere is that connection more grand than in the Enid A. Haupt Garden on the grounds of the Smithsonian Institution Castle.

The Victorian-inspired garden is anchored by a parterre. Plants are rotated through the well-manicured diamond pattern, currently outlined with small purple pansies. A collection of saucer and star magnolias flank the parterre, with their fuzzy buds expected to burst within the week if the weather remains warm. Around their roots, crisp white snowdrops have been blooming.

The Mary Livingston Ripley Garden, which is not connected to a particular museum, is surprisingly quiet, despite its location on top of the Ninth Street Tunnel. The curving paths are lined with raised brick beds that were originally built to enable people in wheelchairs to get closer to the plants. The small garden packs quite a lot in its small space, with pink winter daphne, lenten rose and witch hazel blooming.

• What to see inside: The U.S. Botanic Garden and the Smithsonian Gardens have teamed up for their annual orchid exhibit. The display at the National Museum of Natural History runs through April 26.

• Linger a bit longer: Take a ride on the carousel on the Mall, which sits in front of the Arts and Industries Building. Rides cost $3.50.

Enid A. Haupt Garden: Open daily dawn to dusk. Located behind the Castle, 1000 Jefferson Dr. SW. Mary Livingston Ripley Garden: Not gated. 900 Jefferson Dr. SW. 202-633-2220. . Free.

Star magnolia should be blooming in many places within the next week or two. (Alberto Cuadra/The Washington Post)

U.S. Botanic Garden

Now that it’s spring, skip the U.S. Botanic Garden’s Conservatory — with its indoor jungle, orchid display and Hawaii-themed exhibit — and head to neighboring Bartholdi Park.

Located across Independence Avenue, the park is anchored by a 30-foot-tall cast iron fountain and surrounded by tables and chairs — including some wooden rockers — that offer a lunchtime respite for office workers in nearby federal buildings.

Color abounds in all corners of the triangle-shaped park. On one edge, yellow witch hazel hangs over purple crocuses and crisp white snowdrops. In another spot, an edgeworthia’s fuzzy white buds look ready to pop and unleash their pungent fragrance. On the far corner, heather bushes bloom in shades of white, pink and purple.

The grounds around the conservatory are well-stocked with bloomers, particularly along the walkway between the National Garden and the Conservatory (hellebores and containers of bulbs) and the rain garden (yellow daffodils) on the First Street side of the building.

• What to see inside: Besides the permanent collections, the Conservatory boasts rotating exhibits. “Exposed: The Secret Life of Roots,” which examines what goes on underground, is on display through Oct. 13.

• Linger a bit longer: Every other Thursday at noon and 12:45 p.m., the conservatory Garden Court plays host to free cooking demonstrations. The dishes often utilize produce from the garden.

The Conservatory and National Garden are open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Bartholdi Park is open daily from dawn to dusk. 100 Maryland Ave. SW.
202-225-8333. Free.

U.S. National Arboretum

You could spend all day at the 446-acre U.S. National Arboretum and still not see every bit of it. For early spring blooms, focus on the Asian Collections and the Holly and Magnolia Collections.

The 13-acre Asian Collections, located on the far eastern side of the grounds, is home to flowering quince, winter daphne, hellebores and Japanese apricot. The plants are grouped by country, with a large red pagoda anchoring the landscape. There are numerous vistas overlooking the Anacostia River.

Nearby, the Holly and Magnolia Collections feature the iconic southern staple with a grove of towering trees. While the star and saucer magnolias should be blooming shortly, they are followed by a more glorious show when the “The Girls,” a collection of eight hybrid magnolias with such names as Betty, Ricki and Susan, bloom a week or two later.

• What to see inside : The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum celebrates the art of miniature trees and features more than 150 plants. Like the Asian Collections, the landscaping around the three pavilions that make up the museum feature many early bloomers. The museum hours are Friday through Monday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

• Linger a bit longer: Put your feet up and take a 35-minute
narrated tram tour of the
arboretum. Beginning in April, tours run weekends and holidays at noon, 1 p.m., 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. ($4, seniors $3, ages 4 to 16 $2, younger free).

Friday through Monday
8 a.m. to 5 p.m. 3501 New York Ave. NE. 202-245-2726. Free.