Trees risk not only leaves in the timing of their spring opening, but also flowers. This year the flowers fared much better than the leaves. Even most of the magnolias - probably the most frequent frost victims among our early blooms - escaped the night of winter's last gasp. And so we have this year a floribund May, with all the usual whites and pinks, plus rarer shades of rose, scarlet, magenta and purple.
We think of flowering trees as those with the showiest displays, the most familiar belonging to the domain of fruit trees such as apple, cherry and pear. In fact all trees in our part of the world flower and bear fruit, but at least half of them are unimpressive. The flowers of maple, earliest of all to grace forest edges and village streets, with a reddish tinge, stir the hearts of a few in March. Most folks need a stronger hit of blossom bait, such as the famous cherry blossoms of D.C. George may have chopped down the family sapling, but that loss has been redressed superbly by the city that bears his name.
Our local villages may be no match for the nation's capitol but they boast a variety of blooming trees and bushes, mostly planted or escaped, some native, some not. The manner and history of domestication, introduction and cultivation of many flowering trees is long and complicated, perhaps none more so than the apple. Thoreau wrote an exhaustive and characteristically personal essay on the apple in all its variations, tracing its history back to ancient Greece in the writings of Pliny, Theophrastus and Homer.
Thoreau preferred the wild apple to the domestic, commercial varieties, stating that its struggle in a harsh state of nature improved its delectability, while cultivation's pampering diluted its best qualities. Of the flowers Thoreau said little. Yet I think he'd be pleased to find today that apples are planted as much for their flowers as for their fruit, and also that it is the wild crabapple with its small, tart, astringent fruit that graces public parks, village streets and suburban yards. And though the Bard of Walden Pond, if resurrected, would likely shun hamburger joints, he'd applaud the choice of plantings at many burger franchises - his beloved flowering crabs.
Preceding the apples by about a week are their cousins the cherries. Like crabapples, cherry varieties prized for their flowers (including the willowish weeping cherries of Japanese prints) bear just the slightest fruit, juiceless and bitter, hardly worth trying as morsels. So much the better for the blossoms, which are copious, though short-lived. Flowering plums follow this same pattern of fine flowers, poor fruit.
Plums, cherries, apples, pears, peaches and quinces are all in the rose family (Rosaceae). Like a wild rose, the standard number of petals per flower is five. In wild types this number is nearly without exception, but horticulturists have bred forms with greater numbers of petals, especially among the cherries. We found a plum cultivar in planting beds at a convenience store that had mostly five-petaled flowers, but also flowers with six to ten petals. These flowers had regular arrangements of petals encircling the flower center, nothing like the crowded pom-pom flowers of multipetal cherries that resemble carnations.
Color appeals not only to human eyes but also to the eyes of insects, the agents of pollination for most flowers. The buzzing of bees attending a blooming fruit tree is audible as a mass hum with shifting individual voices. Bees, wasps and flies awake hungry from winter hibernation, and flowering trees rise to the occasion with tens of thousands of nectaries. The colors of attraction are white and ultraviolet (invisible to us); the reddish tints we like so much are mostly a byproduct of color chemistry.
Colors we don't see much in tree flowers are yellows and blues. The shrubs spicebush and forsythia bloom yellow, but I can't think of a blue-flowering tree or shrub. There is a purplish (or puce?) flowering shrub or small tree in some of our woodlands, and planted in yards on occasion. It's a native North American plant called redbud, an understory tree of rich, southern Appalachian hardwood forests. In our region it is most common near the Hudson River where the climate is warm and moist, and the soils are deep and fertile.
The season of tree flowering is swift to pass. For the trees, their fancy spring garb is a practical matter, a call to thirsty insects to aid in the production of more trees. In days the petals of snow white and rose red lie fast fading on the ground. The green season is soon upon us, then the season of ripe fruit from forgotten flowers. ++