Midwest Regional Reports

4 Outstanding Spring Plants for the Midwest

Fine Gardening – Issue 198
Fremont’s Leather Flower
Photo: millettephotomedia.com

We all have certain plants that immediately come to mind when thinking of a garden in spring. For many, these are daffodils, tulips, and hyacinths skirting the trunks of flowering magnolias, cherries, and lilacs. But as William Cullina discusses in his article 9 Perennials to Liven Up Your Spring Garden, there are lots of out-of-the-ordinary or simply underappreciated plants that can elevate your spring garden to something spectacular.

Find some outstanding spring plants for the Midwest below. And discover even more surprising spring stars in 9 Perennials to Liven Up Your Spring Garden.


1. American Wisteria

American Wisteria
Photo: Bill Johnson

Name: Wisteria frutescens

Zones: 5–9

Size: 15 to 30 feet tall and 4 to 8 feet wide

Conditions: Full sun; slightly acidic, moist, well-drained soil

Native range: Southern United States

If you love wisteria but are not impressed by the aggressive— in some regions, invasive—tendencies of the Asian species (W. sinensis), our North American native might be the answer. In April, an abundance of lilac blooms emerge along the vine, which will often reward you with an occasional rebloom throughout summer. Its small stature allows for training on smaller trellises, and it can even be grown in containers. However, pruning is still required to maintain and encourage next year’s blooms. ‘Amethyst Falls’, a newer cultivar, flowers a bit earlier than the species.


2. Spicebush

Photo: Nancy J. Ondra

Name: Lindera benzoin

Zones: 4–9

Size: 6 to 12 feet tall and wide

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; moderately moist, well-drained soil; will tolerate drought

Native range: Eastern United States

This early-blooming, native understory shrub provides multiseasonal interest, encourages biodiversity, and even adds a touch of fragrance. In March, before the foliage emerges, tiny clusters of aromatic yellow flowers bloom along the branches, lending a soft glow. The simple, oval leaves provide a nice garden backdrop, are very fragrant when crushed, and serve as an important larval food source for butterflies and moths, including the spicebush swallowtail butterfly. In fall, the bright yellow leaves fade, revealing vivid red fruits, which are scavenged by songbirds. Both a male and a female plant are needed to produce fruit.


3. Shooting Star

Shooting Star
Photo: Amanda Darcy/gapphotos.com

Name: Dodecatheon meadia

Zones: 4–8

Size 9 to 18 inches tall and 9 to 12 inches wide

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; moderately moist, well-drained soil

Native range: Eastern and central North America

This native wildflower is sure to add charm to any garden. Its delicate, nodding, white-to-pink flowers appear in April and persist into May. Pair it with its native companion, wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides, Zones 3–8), for a stunning late spring wildflower display. This is a true spring ephemeral, with foliage that disappears by midsummer, so plant it among ornamental grasses or other low-growing perennials that will take over once it is finished. For best results, plant it in fall.


4. Fremont’s Leather Flower

Fremont’s Leather Flower
Photo: millettephotomedia.com

Name: Clematis fremontii

Zones: 4–7

Size: 12 to 18 inches tall and 9 to 12 inches wide

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; moderately moist, well-drained soil

Native range: Central North America

If you enjoy clematis, your garden should not be without this native, nonvining, nonclimbing species, whose compact habit creates a lush mound of foliage. In April its irresistible purple-to- white, nodding, bell-shaped flowers begin to emerge. The blooms fade to attractive Sputnik-like fruit that lends a little fall character. This is a petite plant, so situate it next to a patio or walkway or in a rocky area of your yard, where you can enjoy the tiny blooms up close.

Jennifer Smock manages the Kemper Center for Home Gardening at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis.

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