In praise of spring blooming trees…

I readily admit that in my early gardening years I paid little attention to trees. In the suburban environments I have lived most lots were not large enough to accommodate more than a couple of mature trees and you just lived with whatever the city or your neighborhood developer planted.  Many trees were planted too close to the house or each other in an attempt to have a landscape look ‘mature’ way before its time. Over time these trees became hazards to foundations or plumbing or to each other and had to be removed. To this day I can call pitifully few common deciduous or evergreen trees immediately by name unless I have had personal experience with the tree species in question.

When we relocated in 1997 to Macon, GA I arrived in early April, a few weeks after my husband, and in the peak season of Georgia’s impressive array of spring blooming trees. Macon is home to the International Cherry Blossom Festival (not associated with the National Festival in Washington, DC) and boasts more than 350,000 Yoshino cherry trees. Other spring ornamental trees bursting into blossom included white and pink dogwoods (Cornus) of several species, purple leaf ornamental plums (Prunus), and lots of cultivars from the saucer and star magnolia families (Magnolia soulangeana and M. stellata.) All of these bloomed in Macon among a riotous backdrop of azaleas and late blooming camellias and surrounded by 100 foot tall pines and oaks. Pretty heady for a girl from “it never rains in Southern California” who gardened on a 5,000 square foot lot! My years in Macon living on a casually landscaped/quasi-wooded acre taught me a great deal about trees in general and gave me a special love for those trees whose explosion of blooms signal the coming of spring.

As with a few other posts recently I thought about this topic just a bit too long and found it challenging to find nice specimen trees in peak bloom to photograph. When you add to that the inherent pitfalls of taking pictures of trees on other gardeners’ properties without trespassing, getting a good shot without cars or overhead wires in the way, etc., etc. the venture became quite an adventure. Think of the movie Twister only I am trying to figure out where the bottom of the top of the tree I see in the distance is rather than chasing the tornado! And all that without a wing man…it is clear that iPhone photography is not my calling. Bear with the pictures and take a look at what I found blooming in Fresno in the last couple of days.

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Some our earliest flowering trees are the Kawakamii pears, Pyrus kawakamii. These trees are very widely used as a residential tree in the Central Valley and are easily recognized by the bright granny apple green leaves and masses of white flowers as seen below. In contrast to other ornamental pears, the Kawakamii has a broad canopy with weeping branchlets. They mature to no more than about 25′ high and wide and as such can be used in groups on moderate sized lots.

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The Bradford pears, Pyrus calleryana ‘Bradford’, follow the Kawakamii pears closely in the parade of blossoms. The three you see below are planted on the small landscaped side strip of our corner lot.

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The smaller tree on the left was planted in 2008 as a 15 gallon just before we purchased the home and replaced one of the original three on this fence line. The two mature trees are about 17 years old. Blossoms on younger trees tend to be more a bright white and on mature trees, more cream colored. This tree puts its blooms on first, with the leaves breaking after the flowers are finished. The Bradford pear was the first variety of P. calleryana to be introduced and is probably one of the most overused and unreliable landscape trees planted. The species is pyramidical in nature with no central leaders and strongly vertical limbs. As the trees age the branching pattern spreads out, putting excessive strain on the crotch of the tree. This results in many Bradfords splitting in half or into thirds right at the crotch, leaving you with a mature but badly disfigured tree structure. As with most ornamental pears it is susceptible to the bacterial disease called fireblight which will cause varying amounts of summer dieback and cannot be controlled chemically. In a perfect world I would never plant Bradford pears but for us they are an invaluable source of backyard summer shade and hopefully no one will be parked under any of them when they decide come unglued (so to speak!)

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Beautiful spring show on a somewhat iffy tree!

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I pass these 6 striking trees at least once or twice on my daily travels. They are planted in the parking strip of a side yard which sits right on a busy thoroughfare. I have always loved the burgundy foliage found on all the flowering plums in the Prunus genus. There are many species from which to choose and, following my own advice that it never hurts to ask,  I knocked on the door of this house hoping the resident would know the species or cultivar when I decided to add one to my back garden as a focal point. Alas, no information was to be had on what I still perceive to be the perfect purple leafed plum, just right in size, habit and flower mass. I ended up choosing a Prunus cerasifera ‘Purple Pony’ (below)–mine has a LONG way to go to inspire the smile the pink explosion down the street gives me!

Even though the redbud blossoms are on the verge of breaking out, the trees still look pretty twiggy from a distance. There are a number of Cercis species grown in central California. Most are fairly small trees and they are often grown in rows or groups. They profit from a bit of light shade until acclimated to our hot summers. I have a young Cercis canadensis texensis ‘Oklahoma’ in my back garden but it has nary a bud on it yet. I am always amazed by the redbud-it seems one day to be almost invisible and the very next day turns into a riot of purplish pink flowers massed on every branch, twig and even the trunk. The redbud pictured below is one of a number grown along a major crosstown road. I’ll check back on this tree in another week or so when it is in full bloom.

Cultivars of both Magnolia x soulangeana and Magnolia stellata provide an abundance of late winter/early spring color in my community. Although you see a number of the evergreen magnolia such as the classic Southern magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora, in my part of California they traditionally suffered from the affects of our dry heat and lack of rain. These magnolias are just too large for the average residential lot and often end up overpruned and unloved after a few years of cleaning up the leaf litter and fighting the surface roots. The deciduous type magnolias, both those with saucer shaped flowers and those with star shaped flowers, are well loved here. There are many named cultivars of both M. x soulangeana and M. stellata and I feel confident that unless you are speaking about the one you planted (with a tag on it) most gardeners cannot tell one cultivar from another. I know I can’t!

The saucer magnolias, M. x soulangeana, are often erroneously called tulip trees because they bear masses of exceptionally large tulip shaped flowers. These flowers, most often shades of pink and pinky purple, gradually open to resemble large saucers. The bloom precedes the new leaves and in years of late frost can be lost or damaged by the cold. In their youth they can be shrubby and downright uninteresting looking when they are not blooming. This shrubbiness often misleads homeowners into planting the scrawny 5 gallon plant smack up against the house–a decision they will regret when the tree reaches its mature height of about 25-30 feet.

Here are two fairly young saucer magnolia trees. Notice the one on the left is about planted about 2 feet from the home’s foundation. img_5360

This one is quite mature. Below you can see a close up view of this trees blooms.

The star magnolias, M. stellata, are generally smaller in mature height and are often seen locally as multi-trunked large shrubs. While there are cultivars with pink flowers, the white flowered selections seem to be found here in greater numbers. As a species they are quite slow growers and, as with the saucer magnolias, not head turners unless in bloom. I found this lovely and quite large M. stellata used as a street tree on very wide residential street popular with bikers and walkers–a lovely vision up close.

All of these spring blooming beauties so far have been ornamentals. The San Joaquin Valley has thousands of acres of stone fruit and nut trees which produce an always changing sea of blooms for a couple of months each spring. Next year I’ll take you for ride along our Blossom Trail to see blooming trees for as far as the eye can see! I will close with my only offering of an actual fruiting tree. This charming dwarf nectarine greeted me as I  drove into my friend Ellen’s country driveway. I have been to her home dozens of times without taking notice of it. With its blooms just starting to pop out I had to jump out of the car to snap a photo. As with the redbuds, I’ll update you on its bloom power in a week or two!

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I am heading to Filoli for my second A Year in the Garden class on Wednesday. It will be exciting to see if the daffodil bloom has reached its peak and to have a bit more time to stroll the gardens after class without an umbrella!

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