E. A. Wright lives in the New York City area, but the West Coast is home. Her passions include words, flowers, hiking, and music.
A Guide To Spring Flowers In Central Park
April is a month of rapid change in New York City. The month starts out brown, gray, cold, and sometimes, snow-dusted. It ends warm, rainy, green, and lush. In between comes a succession of flowers, increasing in vibrancy as the month nears its end.
Of course, much of New York City is a landscape of concrete and brick, asphalt and underground tunnels. Natural changes can be easy to miss, no matter how dramatic. But not in Central Park. There, winter gives way to spring colorfully and obviously, with sprouts, shoots, buds, and blooms. It's a beautiful place to come to watch the changing flowers of spring.
The park, a long rectangle of skyscraper-free land in the center of Manhattan, is a good place to find tulips, daffodils, magnolias, and cherry trees in April.
Spring bulbs are the first to put on a show of color, closely followed by fragrant shrubs and dramatic flowering trees. The frenzy of flowers continues through the end of April, when early lilacs and azaleas start to appear. Then the pace of change slows, and the park starts to look and feel ready for summer.
As the mix of flowers in bloom shifts so much in April, different places in Central Park end up hitting their peak beauty at different times. A lilac bush won't look like much on April 1, for instance, but it might be a can't-miss-it sight on April 30. This guide to April flowers is an attempt to point the way to what's putting on the best show, where, and when.
About the Flower Maps
Below, I've included several maps highlighting various gardens and particular clusters of flowers within Central Park.
While there's pleasure in exploring the huge park just by wandering, sometimes, especially when the weather's still chancy and the days aren't yet long, it helps to know exactly where you're going to see and get to the sights you planned to see. The maps below aren't a guide to traditional tourist spots in the park; instead, they're a detailed guide to its flowers. In some cases, I've tried to mark individual plants, or groups of plants, with approximate latitude and longitude coordinates.
The maps aren't perfectly precise, nor are they complete. I didn't mark any azaleas, for instance. And just because I've designated a spot as a good place for tulips, don't think that's the only place in Central Park to find those flowers.
What Blooms When In New York City (Approximately)
|Early April||Mid-April||Late April|
Crocus and snowdrops finish
Scilla and chionodoxa finish
Flowering cherries start
Winter honeysuckle blooms
Finally, it's worth noting a huge variable involved in trying to talk about flowering times as if they were fixed in stone. That's the weather. It varies from year to year, and, with it, so do bloom times. What happens in April some years may wait until May in others. And anything from a big windstorm, to a late snow flurry or an early heatwave, could alter the duration and quality of a particular flower's display.
Even within the confines of Central Park, there is variation in bloom times. Flowers in warm, sunny areas may start their show earlier than similar flowers that have been kept cool and shaded.
What Blooms In Early April In Central Park
The flowers of early April tend to come in a limited palette, heavy on whites and the complementary colors of yellow and purple. Those are the colors of one of the earliest spring flowers, the crocus.
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The crocuses linger through the first few days of April, as do white snowdrops, purple iris reticulata, and yellow witch hazel. The pale, nodding hellebores last a little longer, and yellow and white daffodils join them. Flowers like these can be found scattered throughout Central Park, adding interest to bare patches around tree roots.
Because the world still seems so dead, even the smallest, palest flowers of early April seem bright and full of life.
If early spring flowers aren't all fiery eye candy, some of them make up for that by appealing to other senses. Some literally smell like candy.
Now, New York City is not known for its sweet smells. Just ask anyone who has ever ridden the subway, taken a taxi, or walked down a crowded sidewalk on trash day. Even the city's parks can be full of odors only a rat or a raccoon could love.
But for a few weeks in early April, when a particularly plain-looking shrub is in bloom, clouds of sweetness mix with the rain and blow about in the wind. The scent carries like a cloud down the walking paths of Central Park. It's stronger than hyacinths; stronger than magnolias. It's impossible not to wonder what kind of plant is trying so valiantly to take on the task of perfuming the city.
The shrub is Lonicera Fragrantissima (fragrant winter honeysuckle). In early April, the tall shrub still looks, from a distance, like a typical winter tangle of bare branches. But those branches are dotted with dime-sized, drooping flowers — the source of the sweet, strong smell. Up close, the scent is so sugary and overpowering that the only true comparison would be to Fruit Loops. Step back a little bit, though, and the smell is wonderful. It's a little like winter daphne, just magnified.
The flowers of the winter honeysuckle start out as soft pink buds in late March. They open as pinky-white flowers, then fade to pale yellow by mid-April. By then, the plant has new leaves and its glory dwindles.
This fragrant flower is no recent addition to Central Park. In the 1903 book, Trees and Shrubs of Central Park, author Louis Harman Peet noted the presence of Lonicera fragrantissima in the park several times. He rhapsodized this way about a particular specimen near the Arsenal: "When all the ways are bare, this brave bush sends out upon the keen breaths of March or April breezes the ineffable sweetness of its fragrant flowers. Their perfume comes upon you with a thrill in all this air of chill and deadened life, and the joy of the coming bloom wakes in you."
That is still so true.
Fritillaria and Chionodoxa
The best place the find early spring flowers in bloom in Central Park is the Shakespeare Garden.
The Shakespeare Garden is set on a hill right next to Belvedere Castle. Winding, stair-stepped paths in the garden go past beds of scilla, chionodoxa, narcissus and fritillaria. These are all small bulbs that bloom in early spring. They're subtle and beautiful.
Why seek out the Shakespeare Garden? Daffodils and little blue bulbs can be found elsewhere in the park by the first week of April. But in this garden, the flowers aren't just scattered dots. There are already concentrated swaths of color.
By the second week in April, tiny, blue grape hyacinths are in bloom, and so are early tulips. Amid the flowers, plaques display flower-related quotes from Shakespeare's works. A group of large, red tulips comes into bloom near these words from King John: "Of Nature's gifts thou may'st with lilies boast, And with the half-blown rose."
What Blooms In Mid-April In Central Park
Mid-April is when the center of blooming moves off the ground and into the sky. Buds on trees and bushes unfurl into thousands of pink, white and yellow blossoms.
Forsythia screams the loudest: it's as if these bushes were spray-painted taxi-cab yellow. They become solid walls of color.
Magnolia trees unleash huge, mostly white flowers, and many of them are quite fragrant. Different trees bloom at different times throughout April, but they seem to peak mid-month.
Then, of course, there are flowering cherries. And back on the ground, tulips burst into bloom, joining primroses, hyacinth, and the last of the daffodils.
The narrow running path around Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir is known for its views. Most of the year, the drama is in how the Manhattan skyline and Central Park trees mingle with the changing clouds above to form reflections in the water.
But in mid-to-late April, there's another sight that's impossible to miss: the rings of flowering cherry trees (Prunus) around the reservoir. Some of the cherry blossoms are pink; others are white. The petals fly on the breeze and look like satin confetti when they fall to the ground.
Join the runners on the 1.58-mile loop path (just be sure to go counterclockwise) for a continuous view of the trees and the reservoir. And don't look at your feet; look up at the trees.
Another option is to try walking the slightly longer path just below the running loop. You won't see the water from this lower-elevation path, but you'll be surrounded by pink and white blossoms.
The map below marks the south entrance to the upper running loop.
Other Flowering Trees
Cherries may be the most famous of the flowering trees, but they aren't the only kind of tree to create curtains of pink and white blossoms in the spring. Other flowering trees in Central Park include:
- Eastern redbuds
- Flowering dogwoods
- Crabapples (they're planted in spectacular rows at the Conservatory Garden)
- Cornelian cherries (these are yellow and bloom early)
- Flowering quince
- Flowering pear
Many large bushes and shrubs also flower in April, blending in with the flowering trees. I've already mentioned winter honeysuckle and forsythia. Other flowering shrubs include viburnum and shadbush.
Mid-April Flowers: Tulips
Tulips (Tulipa) add more saturated color to the landscape than any other flower in Central Park in the middle of April. While a few early varieties bloom at the start of the month, the groomed tulip beds in the Conservatory Garden come to life mid-month.
Tulips come in nearly every color, and they look particularly pretty just after a rainstorm, as water droplets linger on their smooth petals. Examine them closely, and you'll notice that many tulips have a faint, fresh scent. It's a smell like a mix of salad greens and honey, and it's very springlike.
Huge tulip beds can be found at the Conservatory Garden, a formal garden near the northeast corner of Central Park.
Away from public gardens with gates that lock overnight, it's harder to find patches of tulips growing in New York City. They're a fairly common target of flower thieves.
Tulip mania did not end in the 1600s, apparently.
What Blooms In Late-April In Central Park
If the last week of April had an official color, it would be bright green. Vegetation is suddenly everywhere, and it's exuberantly green, fighting with flowers for attention. It's the kind of green that barely stops short of being neon, the kind of green caused by sunlight shining through leaves that are still young and thin enough not to block it. This color is everywhere, and by summer, subdued into the deep green of shade trees and well-used lawns, it will dominate the landscape.
Yet the flowers of late April can match this onslaught of green with their own vibrancy. Tulips still fill some flower beds with their rainbow hues. Azaleas and dogwood trees come into flower, and some years, the end of April brings lilacs.
Late-April Flowers: Lilacs
If only lilacs (Syringa) lasted longer when they bloom!
For a week or two each year, flowering lilac bushes become completely covered in flowers and drowned in a heavy, summery scent. Bees flock to the flowers, which come in shades of white, lavender, and pink. (Some of the lilac flowers in Central Park even come in striking mixes of white and purple.)
Then, too soon, the blooms fade to a mushy brown color, and the plants start to look like any other green bush.
Lilacs might be considered more of a May flower, but some years, they peak at the very end of April You'll find them clustered in an area north of Sheep Meadow. It's called the Lilac Walk.