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New green leaves begin with elderberries

Leaves and flower buds open on an elderberry. Note the clustered buds that will become the flowers. (Photo by Larry Weber)

As we enter the month of May, we are stepping into a fascinating adventure. The landscape that thawed of snow and ice during April will now take on a complete shift of color. The woods that is still bare and mostly bland-looking at the beginning will be filled with green foliage by the end. Sunlight now penetrates to the forest floor which will be shaded later. The longer daylight along with ample moisture and warmth will bring a plethora of changes. News is daily with the local flora and fauna in the May forests. Indeed, May is when the Northland begins the rainy season and most years, we have temperatures reaching to the 80s.

I like to refer to May as the greening month. This color change actually begins in April and as we start this new month, we see plenty of green lawns where the new chutes of grass have taken off and grow rapidly. Also in yards and gardens, we note the arrival of daffodils, tulips, daylilies and rhubarb. Taking advantage of this direct sunlight in the open sites, these domestic plants flourish. But it continues in the forests.

Later in the month, the canopy of the woods will cast the forest floor in shade. Many plants tolerate this at that time, but now, early in the month, the sun-loving wildflowers take advantage of this brief period of sunlight and warmth here and they grow quickly. Not only do these vernal flora develop new green leaves, but they also open flowers in their few inches of new growth. Each year, I see hepatica as the first wildflower to bloom here, but these six-petaled white-blue flowers are quickly followed by pink spring beauties and white bloodroots.

Every day in the May sunlight, more appear. Wood anemone, violets, ginger, Dutchman breeches, trout-lilies, bellworts and trilliums all hold their blossoms up to be noticed by pollinating insects. And in nearby wet places, the bright yellows of the marsh marigold open among their large leaves. As the month progresses more shade-tolerant flowers will be on the scene, but the first half of this month is when these small flora of the forest floor demand our attention.

Many trees have been flowering already in April. However, the flowers seen on willows, aspens, alders and hazels are mostly those of catkins and are devoid of colorful petals. Red maples do show quite a bit of color in late April. While the male trees are filled with staminate flowers with pollen, the female trees and their staminate flowers are bright red. Later in May, we will see blossoms from many of the local woody plants. Plums, juneberries, cherries and crabapples will add white colors to the greening woods.

But now many trees are beginning their own move towards foliating the forests. Early to mid-May is when these plants begin to open their leaf buds. All winter the hardy trees that stood out in the Northland cold and dry conditions held the new leaves wrapped in their protective buds. Now the longer warmer days are telling the woody plants that it is time to unfold these new green leaves.

Like most spring happenings, this greening of the forest takes place differently with the various plants. I have found as I walk in April and May that the woods greens from the bottom up. The first woody plants to open are not the towering solid trees, but the small shrubs. Nearly always, the first that I see is the small tree, elderberry, also known as red-berry elder and not to be confused with a purple-berry elder that grows south of here.

Growing only about 10-15 feet tall, these small trees are with us all year, but tend to get overlooked. But now as the compound leaves reach out from their large buds, almost looking like a hand, they are hard to not see. Not only do the leaf buds open now, but so do the flower buds, revealing a clustered group that looks somewhat like broccoli. Later in May, the plant holds white blossoms in an umbel growth and by July, they are ladened with red berries.

Elderberry begins this greening of the forest, but others are quick to add their greens to the scene. Gooseberry, currant, honeysuckle, cherry, raspberry, alder and lilac all help May turn green. Willows, quaking aspen, mountain-ash and apples green from taller trees. Large maples, basswood and oaks save their greening until late in the month.

By the time we exit May, the woods is nearly full of mature leaves in complete green foliage. But it begins now, in early May, with the green leaves opening on the elderberries.

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o

Leaves unfold from a bud in early May. (Photo by Larry Weber)

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o