The blossoming trees of late May

Body: 

Mid-May is so full of natural happenings, it is hard to not see newness all around us. The saying, “There’s a new story out here every day,” is even more appropriate now and it becomes hard to keep track of all of the things appearing.

The bird migration that has been progressing through the earlier spring now becomes filled as the warblers move in. These small birds, many of which winter far to the south of here, often in Central America, have put in many hours of flight and now arrive in the Northland. They are present in large numbers in our woods and often several species may be near each other. Some sing as they flit among the branches and we may strain our memories to try to recall what bird is making that song. With some searching, it is not hard to see maybe 10 kinds on a walk.

Though they move quickly about in the branches and are typically small, often only about 5 inches long, this is probably the best time to see this diverse group of birds. Various species can now be seen in the trees since the leaves are still quite small or maybe not even emerged. This allows us to watch these moving birds better. Soon in the green canopy overhead, they will become much harder to find, even though many warblers will still be with us.

Also responding quickly to the small leaves on the forest trees are the spring wildflowers. They take advantage of the available sunlight to grow larger, form leaves and open their flowers. During a recent walk in Jay Cooke State Park, I noted about 15 kinds flowering. These included hepatica, bloodroot, spring beauty (in huge carpets), wild ginger, wild strawberry, wood anemone, white violet, purple violet, yellow violet, toothwort, bellwort, wild oats, Dutchman’s breeches, white trout-lily, yellow trout-lily and marsh marigold. Others like the trilliums and the jack-in-the-pulpit will soon be joining this group. With this many kinds seen on the ground and the warblers in the trees, we might not notice that other blossoms are here, too, on the branches above us.

Tree flowers have been with us since March. They started out as the long growths known as catkins. These matured with plenty of pollen that developed during April. Here in the spring breezes the pollen dispersed. These flowers are not very colorful, not even bothering to form petals; instead relying on the wind for pollination. Now as the leaves are growing on the branches and a plethora of flowers on the ground, the colorful blossoms of the trees are also present. Soon, as we move into late May, we’ll see many more of these arboreal flowers. By the end of the month lilac, apple, Siberian pea and more will decorate yards and parks with colors among the new leaves. But it all begins with a trio of small flowering trees in the woods, often at the edges: wild plum, juneberry and pin cherry.

Usually the first of these is the wild plum. With this small tree, the white-petaled flowers are about 3/4 inch wide and bloom before their leaves emerge. Their attachment seems fragile and often the petals drop off in wind and rains. This tree is followed quickly by juneberry, also known as serviceberry. (I always liked the name “juneberry” since it blooms in May and has berries in July.) It has its flowers and leaves developing at about the same time.

Juneberry petals are long and thin while those of the the third to bloom, pin cherry, are very small. Pin cherry flowers are numerous and when seen closely, they reveal a growth pattern whereby they emerge from a single site, something like sticking out from a pincushion.

Each tree has abundant blooms and fills their branches with this white glow. This trio often flowers along the roadsides and makes our drives at this time more interesting. All have white flowers with five petals. We never realize how common these small trees are in the Northland until this blossoming time is upon us in May.

Though wild plum, juneberry and pin cherry are the first of the trees to open blossoms, they are soon joined by others. In the next weeks, we will see elderberry, chokecherry and crab apples also with numerous white blossoms.

We are not the only residents to notice these plants now blooming around us as we pass by. And if we stop close enough to these white-flowering trees, we will catch the floral aroma and hear a buzzing sound. Many insects, mostly bees, are active here too and come to feed and pollinate the flowers. May will continue to be greening. Warblers and other migrant birds will continue to move among the trees and the flowers of the forest floor will fade and be replaced by others.

Later in the seasonal changes these plums, juneberries and cherries will form berries and fruits. But it starts with the tree blossoming time that we now see in May.