Alive!

After enduring another seemingly endless Finger Lakes winter, the arrival of spring comes none too soon for most of us. Our lawns begin greening up, and our flower beds explode into parades of color as daffodils, crocuses and hyacinths display their brilliance. And once the cycle of growing really gets going, the giant plants, our native hardwood trees, send forth their blooms, too.

About every three weeks, from early-March until mid-June, another species opens its buds. The cycle begins with the pussy willows and ends with the flowering of the catalpa. The spent blossoms of the catalpa fall to the ground, marking the arrival of summer. For an avowed “flower nut” like myself, the pussy willows are the vanguards of springtime.

Like the fleeting appearance and departure of the snow buntings, the opening of the white buds of the pussy willows (Salix discolor) is another harbinger of our Central New York spring. The “flowers,” botanically referred to as catkins, emerge by early March. There may still be snow covering the ground when you happen upon a pussy willow growing along a creek bank, but as long as you’ve got your jackknife, you can cut some branch tips to take home. As a boy, I got many a soaker trudging through the mushy low-lying woods behind our house, as I assembled enough pussy willows to make a bouquet for my mother. By early April, the catkins of the male pussy willow are covered with grains of yellow pollen, ready to be carried upon the winds. After the pollen is dispersed, the trees leaf out and the spectacle ends for another year. But take heart, this is but the opening salvo. The best is yet to come.

About the time the pussy willows are gone, the downy serviceberry, (Amelanchier arborea) opens its buds; generally by mid-April. It is said that the term “serviceberry” dates back to the time when graves were still dug by hand. The flowering of the tree was a signal that the ground was sufficiently thawed to resume burials.

The plant is classified as either a woody shrub or a deciduous tree, and can reach a height of nearly 40 feet. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, downy serviceberry was frequently planted as an ornamental. These days few nurseries sell them, but if you find one that does, it will be marketed simply as “Serviceberry.”

The small, white, five-petal blossoms are borne on clusters of flower stalks that extend from its branch tips. After pollination, each will form a small, extremely sweet, edible wild berry. Wild birds, especially eastern bluebirds, robins, and orioles are literally fruit loopy for serviceberries.

As modern landscaping seems to eschew their use, most likely you’ll have to look for a downy serviceberry growing in hedgerows. On my farm, there’s a lone serviceberry growing along the far perimeter of the cropland behind my house. It’s a bent, gnarly-looking old thing, and only about 8 feet high, but nonetheless, I make the journey every spring, just to look at the blossoms. And as they fade and fall to the ground, the pin cherry and wild apple trees prepare to carry the flowering load for another few weeks.

Pin cherry trees, (Prunus pensylvanica) can be found growing across much of northern North America. The five-to-seven snowy-white petal blossoms cover the trees by late-April. After the flowering cycle, the tree forms tiny clusters of bright-red “cherries.” Though extremely sour, they are also favored by many songbirds.

The wood of the pin cherry is extremely fine grained and splits easily when cured, but the bark is thick, rubbery, and difficult to remove. Loaded with pitch and resin, it burns with nearly the same intensity as white birch, so during my trail walking/camping-out days, my emergency fire starting kit was a mixture of shredded bark from birches and pin cherries. A pin cherry is an easy tree to grow, and if you stop by in early August, I’ll pot up a tiny sapling for you. In early May, the pin cherry’s better known cousin, the black cherry, (Prunus serotina) sends forth clusters of tiny white blossoms, too.

Though its true biological origins as a tree species are shrouded in mystery, another white-flowering hardwood is the wild apple. Near my farm is an ancient wild apple that blossoms every year. Craggy and grizzled, it stands near the edge of the road. No one cares for it, but each spring its boughs are covered with pink buds that unfold into pure-white delicately scented blooms. It may be the last survivor from an old orchard, or it may have sprouted from a seed dropped by a bird.

However it came to be, the old thing soldiers on. The fruit it produces provides food for wildlife, and the nectar from its flowers provides sustenance for wild bees. Properly aged, apple wood becomes rock hard. A well-coaled apple wood fire smells faintly like, you guessed it – apples.

If you can envision our native flowering hardwoods as cannon, the early bloomers are like the classic 10-pound Parrott cannons of Civil War days. But commencing with the flowering of the dogwoods, Mother Nature starts hauling out the heavy artillery.

Considered by some to be the most beautiful of all the flowering trees, the dogwood (Cornus florida) begins blossoming around the time the apple blossoms begin falling. The showy white four-petal blossoms may be as much as 4 inches across and come autumn, a cluster of red berries will form where the flower once bloomed. Unfortunately, dogwood is quite picky about soil types and soil acidity, which limits its habitat. It’s also prone to a plethora of diseases. It took a bit of detective work, but I finally located a lone dogwood growing in the village of Meridian. What the dogwood lacks in sheer numbers, it definitely makes up for in eye appeal. It’s the first of the big guns that we’re in store for.

Of all of the white-flowering hardwoods, black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) is my personal favorite. The clusters of creamy white flowers have a fragrance reminiscent of orange blossoms. The honey from black locust is very light colored and extremely sweet, the perfect companion for a mug of Earl Grey. Unlike most other hardwoods, black locust is a legume and is also an excellent source of firewood. A seasoned ton yields approximately 5 percent more BTU than anthracite coal. Black locust is extremely rot-resistant, making it ideal for pasture posts. Forget about felling a black locust in the springtime. It’s much better to be intoxicated by the fragrance of the flowers. Just watch out for bees.

By late May, the black locust has leafed out, the honey bees have departed, and the flowering cycle has concluded. And while it can’t hold a candle to the fragrance of black locust blossoms, another tree is preparing to cover itself with living candles – the horse chestnut.

What the flowers of the horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) lack in scent they more than make up for with appearance. Borne on stalks called “candelabra,” a mature tree may produce hundreds. The stalks are composed of 10 to 20 individual creamy white blooms, each sporting a pinkish-red center. The nuts are slightly toxic and should not be fed to horses. In the autumn, however, when they fall to the ground, they’re the best friend a gray squirrel or a kid with a slingshot ever had.

Now the cycle of flowering is almost over, but Nature has saved her best performance for last: the catalpa.

Like the horse chestnut, the catalpa, (Catalpa speciosa) is typically planted as an ornamental shade tree. Nicknamed the Indian bean tree, a catalpa may reach a height of 70 feet, and in late spring a catalpa puts on a flowering display like none other. The tree will be loaded with snowy white clusters of five-petal blossoms, sporting a creamy yellow or soft orange center and delicate purple lines. Like the horse chestnut, the flowers are borne on stalks, comprised of 40 or more individual blossoms. Framed against the tree’s light green foliage, the display is absolutely stunning. I’m always amazed how all that flower can possibly be crammed into those tiny buds.

Sadly, unlike the sweet-smelling blooms of the black locust, catalpa flowers are scent-free.

Once pollination has occurred, each flower begins producing a seed pod, which may reach a length of 2 feet. In the early autumn, the pods turn brown, resembling long cigars, lending credence to the nickname.

Like black locust, a catalpa grows rapidly. A young tree, only five years old, can easily reach 10 feet, and it won’t be too many years before it grows to a height of 60 to 70 feet.

After the snow disappears, our other native hardwoods – the beeches, maples, oaks and walnuts – send forth their small green-colored blossoms, too. But whether framed against their lush foliage or the clear blue sky, it’s the striking contrast of the white-flowering hardwoods that embody the beauty of springtime in the Finger Lakes.


by Rich Finzer