Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Discreet Blooms of Early Spring

Part of my morning routine is walking the dogs, which takes me on a tour of our property, through the woods and down to the creek and meadow. We always stop at the creek because the dogs love to romp through the water. Keeping an eye on 3 dogs usually takes all my attention, but the other morning I couldn't help notice the red maple that stands between the creek and the meadow was in full bloom. These blooms are not that noticeable from a distance, unless several trees stand together creating a red haze against the bright blue sky. The first native tree to bring color to our winter landscape, it bursts into bloom before leaf-out.


The blush of the red maple bloom is a sure sign that spring is almost here. Spring in the garden doesn't always coincide with the date on the calendar. This year we've had a particularly mild winter and I've been eager to get started in the garden so I look to nature for indicators. Native trees growing in their natural site have a synchronicity with annual temperature cycles and know when to break bud. Of course there is always the possibility of a late cold snap, but usually these trees get it right. 

red maple blooms

Slightly fragrant, the red maple blooms entice early pollinators to visit their nectar rich flowers. Important for our early native bees and flies and essential for bee keepers, as they provide an early source of nectar for honeybees on warm winter days. Red maples are polygamo-dioecious, thus some trees are only male, some only female and others are both. The photos above and below are male flowers with their exerted stamens and dusty yellow pollen.

red maple flowers

Whereas the blooms supports pollinators, the tree isn't dependent on them for reproduction as they also get assistance from wind pollination. We have two red maple trees near the creek, standing fairly removed from one another, one at the north end and the other at the south end. As far as I can tell both are male. Closer to the house, about 3 acres away, grows a tree, which bears fruit (samaras) in April. I can't conclusively conclude if this tree has both male and female flowers. Even with my zoom lens, the flowers are too tiny and too high up to discern the two.


Another flower that needs to be appreciated up close, the narrow bell shaped blooms of Dirca palustris (Eastern Leatherwood). Almost inconspicuous, the dainty dangling blooms hang in clusters and are long-lived.

Eastern Leatherwood

The lemon yellow blossoms liven up a shady area near our pond. This shrub will grow well in a deep shade garden because of its early leaf out, but note that it prefers moister soils and makes itself at home along a shady stream bank or near a pond. This is an extremely slow growing plant. We've had this one almost 5 years and it is only a few feet tall.

Dirca palustris

The petite fragrant blossoms of the spicebush shrub attract small native bees and flies. The blooms are dioecious, meaning you'll either have a male or female shrub. In our case, we have a female and now need to find a male for pollination so that it'll bear fruit for the birds. Unfortunately, nurseries never label the plants male or female so one has to wait for their bloom time to find a pair.

spicebush flowers

This shrub is the host plant for the spicebush swallowtail butterfly and promethea moth. Grubs of the long-horned beetle bore into the branches and roots. This is an ordinary shrub after bloom time that may fade into the background of the garden, but as it supports several levels of the ecosystem, it is a must have.

It takes a little more focus to welcome these discreet, early blooms, but they make me stop and linger in the garden. I think it is natures way of saying slow down and appreciate the small things. Not every plant has to be big and bold. What's the first flower in your garden that makes you say winter is on its way out?