Garden Variety: A guide to picking trees with pretty spring flowers

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Magnolia blossoms

Trees with vibrant spring blossoms are often at the top of gardeners’ and landscapers’ planting lists. Their popularity is likely due to the attention the flowers attract this time of year, the excitement for color after the brown and gray shades of winter and the desire to shop for plants in the spring. In the Lawrence area, some spring-blooming trees are reliable performers, but others may leave you wishing you had done a little research. Here are a few things to know before picking a tree for its pretty flowers.

Popular spring-flowering trees in the Lawrence area are crabapples, magnolias, dogwoods, redbuds, weeping and flowering cherries and ornamental pears.


Crabapples are one of the most popular spring-blooming trees across the U.S., with flowers ranging in color from white to all shades of red and pink on different varieties. Varieties also range in size from 6 to 40 feet at maturity.

The key things to think about with crabapples are mature size and fruit production. Read the label or research the variety you are interested in prior to planting to be sure it fits your yard and needs. If you’re planting near a sidewalk or drive, fruit may be messy in the fall.

Crabapples are also prone to suckering or producing woody sprouts at the base of the tree and from roots that are near the surface. Crabapples are grafted like almost all nursery trees, so the suckers will produce flowers and fruit that are different from the intended planting. The only way to manage this is to clip the suckers as they appear.

Kansas State University Research and Extension has a publication available on their website and through local county offices that rates 50+ varieties of crabapples by performance and disease resistance in Kansas.

Since there is sometimes some confusion about the difference between crabapples and regular apples – they are defined by fruit size. Crabapple fruit are less than two inches in diameter while apples are greater than two inches in diameter.


Star, saucer, select varieties of southern magnolia, and hybrids such as Ann, Jane, and Butterflies magnolias are all good choice for spring color on hardy trees. Sweetbay magnolia is also a reliable performer that blooms later than the others in May to early June. Flowers are large and range in white, cream, yellow, and pink shades.


Flowering, kousa and corneliancherry dogwoods are the species typically sold in garden centers. Flowering dogwoods and kousa dogwoods have white to pink flowers. Corneliancherry dogwood has bright yellow flowers and is one of the earliest bloomers with flowers appearing in late February to early March. Flowering dogwood blooms next and flowers may be damaged by late freezes. Kousa dogwoods bloom in May after trees have leafed out so are less showy than the others.


Eastern redbud is native to Kansas, produces pinkish-purple flowers and grows to 10-30 feet tall. Flowers are small but line the branches, to create a brilliant effect. The species is somewhat short-lived for a tree, typically surviving 20-30 years in home yards after slow decline from environmental stress, borers and wood decay fungi.

Cultivars of redbud such as ‘Oklahoma’ are reportedly more drought tolerant and possibly more disease resistant. There are also white-flowering cultivars, sometimes called whitebuds.

Cultivated varieties of redbud are more likely to produce suckers than the species. Suckers must be physically removed to prevent the tree from becoming a shrub. Redbuds also produce seed pods which can be messy and lose branches easily in storms.

Weeping and flowering cherries

Weeping cherry and flowering cherry are separate species with similar white to pink flowers on small trees. Cultivars vary mostly in flower color. These are also short-lived trees that tend to sucker, so plan on removing suckers and re-planting after a few decades.

Ornamental pears

Ornamental pears, also known as Bradfords, Chanticleer, Cleveland Select, Aristocrat and various other names, have white flowers with a distinct upright branching structure. These pears have lost favor in the last decade because of their ability to proliferate in the wild. Ohio has added it to an invasive species list and will prohibit sale beginning in 2023.

— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation.


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