It's as if spring sun comes up from the cold ground when egg-size tulips transform dreary landscapes by unfurling tufts of silky, color-drenched petals.
Each spring, a world-class show of color splashes across the 79 acres at St. Louis' Missouri Botanical Garden. During mid-April's peak bloom time, tens of thousands of tulips and daffodils bloom in seas of white, yellow, orange, violet and pink. The display includes more than 100 types of tulips and more than 750 kinds of daffodils.
In home gardens, bulbs offer fool-proof bright color. "If you can grow dandelions, you can grow spring bulbs," says Jason Delaney, Mobot's senior outdoor horticulturist. Give bulbs quick-draining soil and ample sunlight, then admire the early color.
Pictured: Single Late tulip 'La Courtine'.
Some spring bulbs bloom well for a year or two, then disappear. Not these picks from Jason Delaney of the Missouri Botanical Garden.
For tulips, Jason suggests cultivars from the Fosteriana, Greigii, Kaufmanniana, Darwin Hybrid and Single Late groups for Midwest gardeners because they come back year to year. His favorites include:
'White Emperor' (syn. 'Purissima') A Fosteriana, this plant's milky-white petals light up gardens. 16-18 inches tall.
'Stresa' A vivid Kaufmanniana tulip, this early bloomer has yellow-edged red petals. 8-10 inches tall.
'Gudoshnik' This Darwin Hybrid blooms in shades from solid red to creamy yellow with mottled petals. 24 inches tall.
'Tsar Peter' Creamy-white petals with feathered rose centers decorate this Greigii tulip. 10 inches tall.
'Renown' A late-blooming tulip, 'Renown' is in the Single Late group and has reddish-pink flowers and a creamy, blue-edged base. 26 inches tall.
Pictured: T. humilis 'Violacea'.
Jason's recommendations for Midwest-loving daffodils include:
'Monal' This large-cup daffodil unfurls rich yellow petals and a blazing red-orange cup about two weeks before most other daffodils. 16-18 inches tall.
'Pueblo' This late-season daffodil bears tidy little bouquets of two to five white flowers per stem. Expect multiple stems per bulb. 12-14 inches tall.
Narcissus poeticus Often growing wild, it has small white flowers with rich yellow cups and dark red edges (left). It is sweetly fragrant and a late bloomer. 12-14 inches tall.
Jason also loves the following easy-to-grow and animal-resistant bulbs: glories of the snow (Chionodoxa sardensis); summer snowflake (Leucojum aestivum 'Gravetye Giant'); Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica 'Excelsior'), shown at left; Tommy crocus (Crocus tommasinianus'Ruby Giant').
Mail-order sources for bulbs include John Scheepers.
John Scheepers 
Tulips may be splashier, but rhododendrons can coax a sleepy woodland garden or a shaded nook to life. Flowers glowing in bright white, blue and purple fill the woody stems of these fragrant understory shrubs.
The Holden Arboretum's 20-acre rhododendron collection in Kirtland, Ohio, 20 miles northeast of Cleveland, nestles in rolling hills, shaded by towering oaks and maples. The Helen S. Layer Rhododendron Garden includes more than 500 cultivated varieties; some are nearly 60 years old.
Age brings beauty to rhododendrons, and these massive specimens create captivating drifts of white, yellow, orange, magenta and purple alongside wide walking paths.
Holden Arboretum 
Ongoing breeding has generated a host of super-hardy cultivars that thrive in regions as chilly as Zone 3. Growing rhodies requires attention to detail, but they pay gardeners back with masses of roselike spring flowers. Make sure your soil is acidic, porous and well-drained, says Charles Tubesing, chief horticulturist at Holden Arboretum.
Many rhododendrons grow well in full sun; all thrive in partial shade produced by tall trees. If your yard has slow-draining clay soil, plant rhododendrons in raised beds filled with 60 percent sand, 30 percent soil and 10 percent acidic organic matter.
With shallow, fine roots, these evergreen shrubs need about 1 inch of water a week and rarely demand fertilizer.
Pictured: Rhododendron 'Nova Zembla'.
Charles Tubesing of the Holden Arboretum suggests these cultivars for the Midwest:
'Ben Moseley' Clusters of frilled, purple-pink flowers decorate this fragrant shrub in mid-May. 4 feet wide, 5 feet tall. Zones 5-7.
'Brown Eyes' Blooming in early May, this fragrant rhododendron has light pink flowers with maroon-bronze throats. 5 feet wide, 5 feet tall. Zones 5-7.
'Helsinki University' This hardy cultivar sports light pink flowers and glossy, dark green foliage. Blooms mid-May. 3 feet wide, 5 feet tall. Zones 3-7.
'Wyandanch Pink' Massive evergreen leaves form a pleasing backdrop to the pink flowers of this easy plant. 4 feet wide, 6 feet tall. Zones 4-7.
At left: R. 'Caroline' stands in the foreground near a walking trail in the Holden Arboretum's rhododendron garden.
Mail-order sources for rhododendrons include Rare Find Nursery and Carlson's Gardens.
Rare Find Nursery 
Carlson's Gardens 
Robins and lilacs get credit as "first signs of spring," but for a lot of Midwesterners, crabapple blooms capture the essence of the season.
They're hard to miss. These hardy, 10- to 25-foot trees offer a season-spanning show. Come spring, clusters of delicate pink or red blooms open to fragrant sprays of white or pink petals. Crabapples provide shade during the summer, and their clusters of bright yellow, orange or red fruits can last through winter (if you pick a newer variety).
Longenecker Horticultural Gardens (left), set on 35 acres at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum, features about 175 crabapple cultivars. The labeled collection showcases some of the newest, oldest and best for the Midwest. Full bloom arrives around May 10, says Ed Hasselkus, professor emeritus of horticulture.
At Longenecker, the juicy-sweet perfume of flowering crabapples mixes with another favorite Midwestern fragrance--lilacs. The garden grows 275 lilacs, one of the nation's largest displays of this hardy shrub. The crabapples and lilacs bloom in tandem, producing a May show worth a special trip.
Ed Hasselkus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum recommends these varieties. All are hardy to Zone 4 and thrive in well-drained soil and full sun.
'Adirondack' (Malus 'Adirondack') Ed calls this "the best upright crab." Its red buds become white flowers that set persistent orange-red fruit. It's disease-resistant, especially to scab. 18 feet tall, 16 feet wide.
'Candymint' (Malus sargentii 'Candymint') This hybrid sports red flowers, a flat top and a widespread growth habit. White and pink fruit. 8 - 10 feet tall, 18 feet wide.
'Firebird' (M. sargentii 'Select' Firebird) Mike Yanny of Johnson's Nursery in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, developed this crab. Its red buds open into white flowers. It sets long-lasting red fruit every year (unlike some crabapples that flower every other year). 8 feet tall and wide.
'Louisa' (Malus 'Louisa') Ed's favorite weeping crab has "fantastic form" and is one of only two crabs with true rose-pink flowers. (The other is Pink Sparkles.) Golden fruit. 15 feet tall and wide.
Pink Sparkles ('Malusquest') Developed by Majestic Nursery in West Alexandria, Ohio, Pink Sparkles offers rose-pink flowers; tiny, long-lasting red fruit; and a compact, upright form (15 feet tall, 12 feet wide). This tree is new enough, however, that it may be difficult to find.
Sugar Tyme 'Sutyzam' Ed calls it the best white-flowered crabapple. "It has nice form and good persistent fruits," Ed says, adding, "If you planted five of them, they'd all look exactly alike." Red fruit. 20 feet tall, 15 feet wide.
Sources: For larger trees, check local garden centers. For seedlings in 1- and 5-gallon pot sizes, try Forestfarm.