In the Garden:
Northern & Central Midwest
May, 2001
Regional Report

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The soft emerging leaves of a pin oak (Quercus palustris) are accompanied by delicate, dangling flowers.

Flowering Shade Trees

Spring has been so slow in coming this year, it's given me extra time to appreciate the subtleties of the season. Most years I can't wait for the shade trees to be in full leaf. This spring's slow approach, however, has reminded me to enjoy the wonderful flowers of shade trees. Yes, the wild plums and forsythia are beautiful when they bloom, but so are the large trees.

Shade Tree Flowers

When most people think of flowering trees, flowering crabapples and magnolias and such come to mind. However, large trees such as maples, oaks, and elms put on a show, too. Granted, their flowers aren't as spectacular as those of a saucer magnolia, but they're beautiful in their own right. More important, many trees bloom when nothing else does, allowing us to enjoy their promise that summer really is coming.

Favorite Flowering Trees

My favorite early spring-blooming trees are red maples (Acer rubrum) and 'Freeman' maples (A. rubrum 'Freeman'). In the early morning light, they absolutely glow with clusters of crimson and yellow flowers. Very soon after the flowers drop their petals, you begin to see tiny red-winged seeds hanging from the flowers, making the color display last several weeks.

The enormous-leaved Norway maples (A. platanoides) burst forth with large clusters of yellow-green flowers. These are particularly striking against a gray sky, which we've seen plenty of this year. The closely related 'Schwedler' Norway maple and 'Crimson King' Norway maple not only have the chartreuse flowers, but their blossoms are surrounded by deep maroon unfolding leaves. You couldn't ask for a better floral combination.

Of Oaks and Elms

Once the oaks and elms start blooming, I know the warm season is truly on its way. The plump buds of elms open with tiny clusters of greenish red flowers that are showy for their shear number, which covers the tree in a cloud. Oak catkins expand by dangling flowers on slender stalks, something like golden-green earrings. It's hard not to be cheered by these beautiful works of art.

And Birches and Alders

Birches and alders bloom with long, graceful catkins with two different kinds of flowers. The male flowers, on the tips of the branches, shed clouds of soft yellow pollen when brushed by the wind or a hand, while the female flowers are suspended gracefully on long, swaying stems.

Flowering Larch

If you have the good fortune to have a larch growing nearby, make a point of observing it through the spring. Larch, or tamarack, is a deciduous conifer, meaning that it puts out an entire crop of new needles each spring. The bright green new needles are born in tufts at the same time the tree begins to bloom. The flowers and following tiny cones are shades of red, pink, and purple.

So the next time you're outside admiring the flowering rhododendrons and daffodils, look up. You'll be amazed at the beauty overhead in those large shade trees.

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