By Mel Bellar
Spring is always exciting, brimming with anticipation, teasing us with snow drops and Spring ephemerals leading us on. The older I get the more I have come to appreciate watching the mountains go through their slow subtle metamorphosis from the slight pinky glow of the first awakening to the full-blown green you are probably seeing at this reading. I have come to particularly relish the blooms of the red maples followed by the sugar maples. It is always surprising how the catkins of the willows trick me into wondering what is blooming white. I have a black pussy willow that is so cool, but the deer go after it like I go after peanut butter and chocolate; it is always so sad. I love the way that the catkins of the birches, aspens dangle and jiggle in the breeze. The Harry Lauder’s Walking stick in my garden sports cute catkins for quite a while which I find very entertaining.
The real show in the wild starts when the Amelanchier and various cherries start blooming at the edges of the forest and sides of the hills. I say Amelanchier because there are so many common names for these trees that one would not suffice: Shadblow, Shadbush, Juneberry, Serviceberry to mention a few. I have given up on trying to identify the range of whiteish to pinkish blooms during April and early May as there are so many of them. Many of them are Amelanchier, and a lot are varieties of cherry. Asking real natives of the area what they are will get you a plethora of common names that Google can’t even sort out.
While the “flowering” trees in the wild offer little trauma as they do their Spring thing, our domestic trees can be quite nerve-wracking. However, my wife just pointed out to me that the pollen this year is off the charts, leaving a film on the cars and leading to watery, itchy eyes and an annoying coughing. That is a little traumatic (so glad I don’t have the allergies).
Our beautiful Shadblows are a popular tree amongst native plant enthusiasts, both professionals and homeowners, but cause a lot of disappointment as they often struggle to get established and then often do not do well. I have had this experience several times and have decided that they are just one of the trees that we have to leave to nature. I came to the same conclusion with staghorn sumacs, which I love, but that is a story for another time. However, I don’t want to discourage folks from planting shadblows, and would love to hear some success stories and learn the secret. Another native tree (that I have never seen in nature) that is super appealing is the fringe tree, Chionanthus virginicus, but I have found it to be temperamental as well. When it catches and blooms, however, it is amazing.
Magnolias are the greatest garden trees and there are several types that can work in our area. We have climate change partly to thank for this. The star magnolia has always done well here as it is a true Zone 4 tree. It blooms in April and has beautiful white blossoms that put on their display before the foliage emerges. However, every few years the tree is in full flower when we get a very hard frost, and the flowers turn brown and shrivel up. That happened to my tree this year while it was blooming more magnificently than ever before, while a tree in a client’s garden down the road is fine. Nature is so fickle. I always avoided planting saucer magnolias, Magnolia soulangeana, because they were not sufficiently hardy and therefore really susceptible to getting zapped. I started planting them about 5 years ago. They tend to get hit a little more often than the star magnolia but I think it is worth the gamble. That is because magnolias have one of the most beautiful branch structures of any tree that we can grow, and I love them, regardless of their flowers, as a structural small tree in the garden. Lastly are the yellow magnolias. “Butterflies” and “Elizabeth” are ones that have been around for a while, but there are many new ones. These trees are truly beautiful, but they are slow to start blooming (at least 3 years) and then they gradually get better and better each year. They are also vulnerable to the last frost. I think many of us watch the magnificent specimen in the village right at the Triangle in town (at Rima’s house) as it matures and struggles with getting zapped. It was full of blooms this year and then got a setback with some brown edges, but it was basically a good year for it.
Next year I will continue with crabapples, cherries, pears, hawthorns, redbuds, dogwoods . . . and all of the things I didn’t get to.
Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate Andes gardener.~