"Trees are very satisfying. They stay put; they don't go out at night; they don't have dates...Living less complex lives, they are not as stimulating as people, although, on the other hand, they are less disappointing than many people. They are less trite and are rooted in the earth, a fact not true of every person." Harvey Broome
After the spring peepers begin their chorus and the first ephemeral wildflowers crop up, a natural event unfolds across North Carolina that, for me, rivals the show of the October leaf season and has me scurrying all over the place taking photographs. While most outdoors enthusiasts are looking down at the bloodroots and hepaticas, and a little later the trilliums and dwarf irises, I'm looking up-at the trees. The flowers and emerging foliage of our native trees exceeds October's leaf show in tonal range, and I don't know of anything else in nature that is so beautiful and so intriguing when viewed both from a distance and from up close.
The physiography of North Carolina makes it a perfect habitat for all sorts of trees. The mountains alone claim more species than in all of northern Europe. The incredible diversity of trees, both evergreen and deciduous, means that at most any given time something is in bloom or in fruit and putting on a show throughout the year. Witch hazel, a small tree with yellowish green flowers, even blooms in winter. But to me, no other time rivals early spring.
Witnessing the show is as easy as driving along a country road. In fact, some of the best sights are from the road, where you can get a better view of the overall forest. This is especially true in the mountains. The varying elevations allow you to see much more of the forest than what you could see from flat terrain. Also, in the mountains you can drive above the forests and look down over great distances-something you can do only from an airplane in other parts of the state. Of course, if you want a closeup view, you're going to have to get out of the car, and I definitely recommend that you do just that. The flowers and buds of trees are every bit as intricate and appealing as those of herbaceous species.
North Carolina has dozens of native tree species that bloom in spring. I'll highlight a few of the more prominent and showy species that bloom from about mid-March through April.
Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)
"Stepping delicately out of the dark woods, the startling loveliness of Dogwood in bloom makes each tree seem a presence, calling forth an exclamation of praise, a moment of worship from our eyes." Donald Culross Peattie
One of our most beautiful and beloved trees, and also the state flower of North Carolina, flowering dogwood grows nearly everywhere in the state, from the bottomland swamps of the coastal plain, to the cove hardwoods of our mountains. George Washington planted dogwood at Mount Vernon, Thomas Jefferson planted it at Monticello, and untold thousands of modern-day gardeners plant it in their personal Edens. Horticulture magazine called dogwood "America's best-loved flowering tree.
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But it is in the wild where dogwood is the loveliest. Its early flowers light up our otherwise monotone woods and in September its bright red berries announce the coming of autumn and the start of a long feast for dozens of species of birds who relish the fruit. The four white (rarely pink) "petals" of dogwood are not petals at all, but are technically called the bracts. The true flowers-very small and an inconspicuous yellow-green color-are in the center of the bracts-a "botanist's quibble" as author and naturalist Donald Peattie observed. Numerous cultivars with pink or red bracts have been developed, but many people, myself included, regard the native white species as the most lovely.
Can you imagine our forests without dogwoods? Sadly, that is a possible scenario, particularly in the mountain regions. Dogwood anthracnose, a fungal disease caused by the non-native pest Discula destructiva, is killing our beloved flowering dogwoods. First appearing in 1978 in New York City, the fungus spread rapidly, and in 1988 botanists discovered it in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. By the year 2000 it had killed some sixty percent of the park's dogwoods and has since shown no signs of abating. Trees growing in higher elevations, particularly those in wet, shaded forests are the most susceptible. If researchers don't soon discover a control method, however, the prognosis for the species over its entire range is not good.
Redbud (Cercis canadensis)
"When the redbud flowers, the still leafless deciduous woods display its charms down every vista; it shines in the somber little groves of Scrub Pine; it troops up the foothills of the Appalachians; it steps delicately down towards the swampy ground in the coastal plain, flaunts its charms beside the red clay wood roads and along the old rail fences of the piedmont." Donald Culross Peattie
Beginning their show even before the dogwoods, the redbuds are in such fiery glory when the dogwoods do bloom, the contrast between the deep pink and purple of its flowers, the white bracts of the dogwood, and the mundane gray of the still-wintry woods borders on sensory overload. My favorite time to see redbuds is during a foggy rain, when the background forest is muted to a single hue and the flowers stand out in bold contrast.
Redbud is sometimes called Judas-tree-a name more properly applied to a related Mediterranean species in accordance with the ancient belief that Judas Iscariot hanged himself from the wood, and thereafter the formerly white flowers turned red from shame. Peattie points out that the name "redbud" has been in use in North Carolina since at least 1700 when John Lawson referred to it by that name, adding that "George Washington and Thomas Jefferson called it Redbud too, and that should be good enough for any American.
It's good enough for me, but I still wonder if the person who first named the tree was colorblind. With its vibrant hue, purplebud would be a more fitting name.
Serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis)
"No tree I know has more appeal. There is nothing heavy, or obvious, about its blooming-nothing mathematical or flaunting. Here is beauty in restraint, with a baffling, shy, elusive quality." Harvey Broome
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The white flowers of serviceberry appear even earlier than those of redbud or flowering dogwood-sometimes as early as late February in lower elevations of our mountains, the only place in North Carolina where this species commonly grows (other Amelanchier species grow across the state). In addition to the dogwoods, a few other white-flowered tree species grow in our mountains, but none so dominates a wide-angle view as does serviceberry. Take a drive along the southern portions of the Blue Ridge Parkway in March and early April and you'll see whole mountainsides dappled with the blossoms.
An oft-told tale is that the common name "serviceberry" comes from the days of circuit riding preachers who often arrived in early spring-when the tree was blooming-to perform their first services of the year. The alternate name "sarvis" also alludes to this. Peattie has another take on it, saying that "Serviceberry is meaningless as a name..." and suggesting that "sarvis" is a transformation of a fruit called "sorbus" by the Romans.
Red Maple (Acer rubrum)
"...if one takes an airplane flight...one can pick out-as far below as the color can be detected-the Red maples, by the promise of spring in their tops, for no other tree quite equals them at this season in quality or intensity of color." Donald Culross Peattie
When most people think of red maple, they picture scarlet leaves outshining most other trees in the autumn landscape, but as Peattie reminds us, red maple is a prominent sight nearly year-round. In late winter, the buds turn fiery red before opening with reddish flowers, which then later form bright red, winged fruits (helicopters in kid talk, samaras in botanical language) that youngsters so delight in tossing in the air. Its final springtime act is the emerging leaves, which cast a copper hue across the landscape. Of all the trees, none contributes more to the tonal range of an April forest.
Red maple is one of our most common forest trees, ranging from the maritime forests of the Outer Banks to the cove forest of the mountains, and most everywhere in between. Its wood is not as valuable or its sap as sweet as the less common sugar maple, but as a photographer I know that when April comes, the reds will strike a pose that the sugars can't hope to equal.
I've discussed only four species, and while these are perhaps our most showy of the early-spring flowering trees, they provide merely a glimpse into our wonderfully diverse forests. There are so many more: black locust, with its fragrant, drooping clusters of white flowers and unimaginably hard and lasting wood; silverbell, the "Hershey" tree (from the bark that resembles a chocolate bar), with it's bell-shaped flowers; punctatum, the earliest flowering evergreen rhododendron of our mountains; the incredible variety of white- or pink-flowered subcanopy trees that occur all across North Carolina; and dozens more. And then there are the emerging leaves that contribute even more to the myriad forest colors than the flowers. Oak leaves, in particular—with their shiny copper hue—can dominate a mountainside view.
This April, take a ride or a hike through the woodlands of North Carolina. But instead of looking down for the wildflowers, look up at the autumn colors of spring.
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To learn more:
One of the most delightful books ever published about trees is Donald Culross Peattie's A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America, published in 1948 by Houghton Mifflin. Peattie's writing style and the wealth of information he provides makes this book a must-have for any tree lover, although it's not the best choice as an identification guide. Two good books for identifying trees in our area are Trees of the Southeastern United States, published by The University of Georgia Press, and Eastern Trees, in the Peterson Field Guides series. All three books are available at most bookstores.
Quotes in this article from Peattie come from the book mentioned above; those from Broome come from Out Under the Sky of the Great Smokies, published in 2001 by the University of Tennessee Press.