Gardening columnist

The Japanese apricot is a small, twiggy tree that blooms in winter, even if no one is looking. By the time its cousin, the flowering cherry tree, blossoms, the apricot display is history.

The problem with winter flowering trees and shrubs is that they are jerked around by warmth and frigidity so that, at best, you get a trickle of blooms that lack overall punch. At worst, a tree bursts into full bloom only for the entire inventory to take a killing hit.

Some years are better than others. For the Japanese apricot, this winter has proved a banner year. The early freeze kept the buds tight and gave them the chilling period they need. The recent extended balmy spell — with highs surpassing 80 degrees — produced an explosion of color and fragrance.

There was no danger this winter that it would bloom unseen. The show was on full display in the plant border near the entrance to the U.S. Botanic Garden’s conservatory. Three small but mature trees had smothered themselves in so many carmine-red blossoms that I was hard-pressed to make out their branches. They were a variety named Matsubara Red, double-flowered but still wild-looking and strongly scented. The trees drew two types of visitors: human admirers and overwintering honeybees in need of fresh pollen and nectar.

Old Japanese apricots can get to 20 feet, but these red varieties were half that height and full of a spicy scent. The Prunus mume is so attractive a tree, so amenable to the small garden, that you wonder why everyone doesn’t have it. Well, the answer is that most people notice tree varieties at garden centers when the merchandise is in full bloom. No one thinks to visit a garden center in February, even if it is open.


Japanese apricot variety Kobai in bloom at the U.S. National Aboretum. (Adrian Higgins/TWP)

The Japanese apricot does produce fruit, by the way, but it’s bitter and barely edible. The culinary apricot blooms a month later but is a needier plant.

Besides its spraying needs, the fruiting apricot points to the worry that comes with plants that flower at the tail end of winter. We remember the angst last year when a warm February was followed by a frigid March and threatened Washington’s cherry blossoms.

But the Japanese apricot and its February ilk are of a different order. They have always taken their chances with midwinter freezes, and their precariousness is understood.

What they do demonstrate is that spring stirs far earlier than we imagine and has been in the works for weeks before everyone wakes to the soft-pink necklace around the Tidal Basin, as pretty as that is.

When you see a lone Japanese apricot in flower amid the dormancy of the winter landscape, the impulse is to think of it as an outlier. The more familiar you become with winter bloomers, the more you understand that the apricot is in pretty abundant company. These are some of the plants I found in bloom locally last week: daffodils (February Gold, I think), reticulated iris, crocuses, camellias, hellebores, violas, sweetbox and winter aconite. The witch hazel was going over. The star-shaped violet blossoms of a shrub named Rhododendron dauricum could be seen among the camellias at the National Arboretum.


Winter aconites are among the earliest bulbs to appear. (Adrian Higgins/TWP)

If you consider seasonal stirrings beyond blooms, you get an even stronger sense that more than two months after the solstice, the natural world is awakening. Look closely at the buds on many shrubs and trees, and you will see their scale casings parting to make way for new growth. This is quite evident on rosebushes. (If you haven’t done your annual pruning yet, grab some thick gloves and the pruners.)

But back to the Japanese apricot. There are a number of varieties with distinct blooms and growth habits, though they tend to be upright and arching and the blooms are smaller and less relaxed than flowering cherries, so the effect is a little stiffer. Some deft pruning would make them more graceful.

If the strong color of Matsubara Red is too much, a variety named Kobai is a more restrained red-pink with prominent stamens that quiet the color further. Among the soft pinks, Dawn is a popular variety. Hana Kami and Peggy Clarke each have layers of rose-pink petals, but the latter is fuller and softer.

The tree recedes in presence in the growing season, with reasonably attractive yellow fall color. There may be winters when you wonder why you lent precious space to a Japanese apricot, but not this year.

Edgeworthia is another East Asian beauty in need of greater use. Happy in full sun or partial shade, it is a brassy shrub that will grow to about five feet high but more than that across after a few years. Its blue-green foliage, when it leafs out, is both cooling and tropical in mood. It is now full of large and fragrant blossoms, with none of the coyness of the apricot’s. The buds are conspicuous for weeks before they open as clusters of tubular florets in orange-yellow or red, depending on variety.

Another big-boned early bloomer should be used more. The Japanese cornel dogwood (Cornus officinalis) grows as a large twiggy shrub or small tree and in time develops peeling orange-tan colored bark. It blooms a little earlier than a better-known close relative, the cornelian-cherry dogwood (Cornus mas), and is smothered in globular yellow blooms. Finding retail sources of the apricot, edgeworthia and especially the dogwood may be challenging because of their blooming schedule, but the Internet stands ready.

The quest is worth it. Each of them has the power to alter our perception of when the growing season begins, and to convey all the uplifting feelings of renewal, hope and anticipation that comes when life begins again.

@adrian_higgins on Twitter

Tip of the Week

In the Mid-Atlantic, tomato and pepper seeds can be started indoors under lights in early to mid-March for planting in early May. An electric heat mat will speed germination, especially for peppers. Use a growing mix made for seed starting, not a potting soil. Once seedlings are two to three inches tall, move them carefully into individual pots.

— Adrian Higgins