Early Spring Flowering Plants

Early Spring Flowering Plants

The Burke’s Backyard Spring Special features the following plants.

Rhododendron ‘Christmas Cheer’

Rhododendrons are one of the world’s most beautiful cold climate flowering plants. There are between 800 and 900 different wild kinds of rhododendrons, as well as thousands of hybrids. They range in size from tiny specimen shrubs to impressive trees that grow up to 20-30m (100′) tall. Some species, such as Rhododendron ‘Christmas Cheer’, can also be used as hedging plants.

Christmas Cheer is a low growing shrub that is no taller than two metres when fully grown. They have gorgeous soft pink flowers that fade to a very pale pink.

Common name: ‘Christmas Cheer’. The rhododendron is so named because it flowers in the northern hemisphere around Christmas time.

Botanic name: Rhododendron. The genus name derives from two Greek words, rhoden, ‘a rose’, and dendron, ‘a tree’.

Best climate: Cooler and mountain areas of Australia.

Best look: Planted in a row, they make a spectacular hedge.

Good points: Low maintenance shrub that requires little pruning.


Mildly acid (5-6 pH), well drained, fertilised soils.
Part shade to sun. Rhododendrons are more prolific if positioned in areas with about 60% sun.

Dislikes: Extremely hot, dry weather – mulch well in spring and summer to keep roots cool and moist.

Care: Prune after flowering has completed.

Availability: Plants are available at most garden centres in south eastern Australia and mountain districts. It costs $30 for a 25cm (10″) pot.

Further information: Rhododendrons can be viewed in gardens in the cooler parts of Australia including:

Mount Tomah Botanic Garden, Bells Line of Road, Mount Tomah, NSW, 2758. Phone: (02) 4567 2154.
The National Rhododendron Gardens, the Georgian Road, Olinda, Victoria, 3788. Phone: (03) 9751 1980.

Jonquil ‘Erlicheer’

The jonquil is one of the best bulbs for Australian conditions. ‘Erlicheer’ is an easy-to-grow, beautifully perfumed, creamy coloured double flower. As its name suggests it flowers early. It is very hardy, flowering relentlessly each year.

For more information on jonquils, see this week’s jonquil fact sheet.


Forget-me-nots have long been a garden favourite for their dainty blue flowers that complement plants of stronger colour and form. In recent years pink and white forms have also become available.

Common name: Forget-me-not

Botanic name: Myosotis sylvatica. The genus name derives from the Greek words meaning ‘mouse ear’ and refers to the pointed tips of the leaves. The species name is Latin, meaning ‘of the forest’.

Best climate: Forget-me-nots grow in all regions of Australia except tropical areas north of Brisbane.

Best look: Forget-me-nots make an attractive ground cover and create lovely washes of colour when planted in drifts.

Good points:

Low maintenance flowers that require no pruning and are seldom affected by pests or diseases.
Several good varieties are available including dwarf versions.

Down side: Growth can become rangy and weed-like.


Fertile, well-drained soil
Part shade to sun, for example a woodland setting or in a sunny garden with the protection afforded by larger plants.

Care: Forget-me-nots respond well to additional feeding in the pre-flowering period.

Availability: Forget-me-nots are available at most garden centres and cost $4 for a 10cm (4″) pot and $8 for a 15cm (6″) pot.

Pieris ‘Christmas Cheer’

One of the most popular forms of pieris is ‘Christmas Cheer’, a tall shrub or small tree (between 2-3m or 6-10′ tall) with white to deep pink pendulous flowers. It is a variety of Pieris japonica, as are many of the most commonly grown varieties of pieris.

Common name: Lily of the Valley shrub. The plant’s firm, waxy white flowers are reminiscent of lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria). It is also known as pearly flower and andromeda.

Botanic name: Pieris japonica. The genus name Pieris is from Pieria, a district on the slopes of Mt Olympus in Greece. Pieria is the birthplace of the mythological Muses (all daughters of Jupiter). The species name ‘japonica’ means from Japan and refers to the origin of this species.

Best climate: Pieris grow well in the cooler regions of Australia, from Sydney to Perth and areas south but are at their best in the mountains, Tasmania and parts of Victoria. They will also grow in the inland regions of Queensland. They like similar conditions to azaleas or camellias, that is well-drained, slightly acid soil and filtered light.

Best look: Massed together or grown in a mixed planting under trees or against a wall.


Moist, lime-free, humus-rich soils
Good drainage
Part shade to sun
Position which is sheltered from wind and frost


Young foliage and early flowers are vulnerable to frost damage.
Hot conditions – mulch well in spring and summer to keep roots cool and moist.


Water regularly, do not allow to dry out.
Use an organic mulch such as leafmould to help the plant retain moisture and to keep roots cool.
Remove any frost damaged growth in spring.
Deadhead pieris after flowering has finished – these plants should not need any other form of pruning.

Other species

As well as P. japonica there are other species of pieris that are sold at nurseries. A tall-growing, spring flowering species is Pieris formosa, which grows to 4m (12′). A form of this is P. formosa var. forestii, which is smaller than the species with crimson new growth and panincles of flowers.


Plants are available at most garden centres in southern Australia and mountain districts all year round. Nurseries specialising in rare or cool climate plants should have a comprehensive range of pieris varieties.

Plant finder

These plants may be new to many gardeners and a new book by Margaret Hibbert helps you to locate them and many other plantings throughout south-eastern Australia.

The Aussie Plant Finder 1997/98 by Margaret Hibbert (Florilegium, 1997). ISBN 0958649898. Contact your local bookstore or Florilegium on (02) 9555 8589. Rrp $19.95.


Hellebores are excellent ground cover plants for shaded areas and their winter flowers brighten up the garden when many plants are looking bleak and miserable.

In the past it was difficult to find hellebores in pure colours. Many purple and pink flowers were tinged with green, making them less attractive and fairly insignificant. But growers are now producing hellebore varieties with strong, pure colours such as white, red, mauve and pink. For something different, look for hellebores with pure green flowers.

Common name: Hellebore or Lenten Rose. Despite the common name, these plants are not roses. In Australia they flower in winter not at Christmas. The name Lenten or Christmas Rose refers to their winter flowering in the northern hemisphere.

Botanic name: Helleborus orientalis (one of several species of ornamental hellebores). Hellebores are a member of the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae. The genus name Helleborus was originally used by Greek botanist Theophrastus to refer to medicinal herbs and it gradually became associated with what is known today as the hellebore. The species name orientalis means from the east.

Note: As there is so much hybridisation, garden forms are often referred to as H. x orientalis, H. orientalis Hybrids or H. hybrids.

Best climate: Grows best in southern Australia in cool, elevated regions from Sydney to Perth and south.

Best look: Hellebores are ideal for planting in drifts under trees.

Good points:

Naturalise readily
Winter flowers
Wide colour range in flowers

Down side: Many hellebores have flowers which hang down and cannot be fully appreciated when viewed from above.


Semi-shade to sun (often grow best under deciduous trees)
Alkaline soil
Moist soil


To keep soils moist incorporate plenty of compost into soil when planting, and mulch well.
Water well, particularly during summer (deep water).
Remove dead flowers and leaves in spring, but otherwise do not prune.
Fertilise in spring by mulching with well-rotted manure.

Flowering: Hellebores flower from winter to early spring. The flowers bloom on stout stalks and stand between 20-50cm (8-20″) tall. Heads start off as nodding (bent down) flowers but do straighten with age.

Note: Hellebores make good cut flowers if picked when they are mature, fading in colour and beginning to turn lime green. If picked earlier, they will soon wilt when put in a vase.

Getting started: Buy hellebores in bloom to ensure flower colours are agreeable. Potted plants are available from most nurseries in areas where hellebores grow from $10 (for a 15cm or 6″ pot). Plants are also available from perennial and cottage garden specialist nurseries and from some mail-order bulb suppliers.