The flowering trees of spring are showy performers
By Anita Clevenger
The Dance of the Flowering Trees is about to begin in Sacramento, as bare branches don frothy floral tutus that shimmy in the breeze. Different varieties of trees take their turn on our winter and spring stage, performing solo, in duets or chorus lines of bloom. It’s one of the great shows of the year, and it will be debuting all over town very soon.
I bicycle past a small star magnolia, M. stellata, on my way to the gym. I’m reminded of the delights to come when its fuzzy buds start to swell just after the new year. The white floppy star-shaped flowers burst into fragrant bloom at the end of January.
In summer, fall and early winter, trees bear flowers along with leaves. The impact of their flowers is lessened by their surrounding foliage. I’m especially partial to trees that bloom before their leaves emerge, when there is nothing to observe but the structure of the branches decorated by flowers.
This season, look closely at the flowering trees and think about adding one or more to your landscape.
Magnolias can be evergreen or deciduous, dropping their leaves in the fall. The saucer-flowered deciduous magnolias, often called “tulip trees” because of the shape of their buds, usually bloom before they leaf out. They tend to be small to medium-sized trees, although some varieties will slowly grow large. The flowers are often white with purplish outer petals, or you can choose hybrids with deep purple and ruby red blossoms. Daisy Mah grows several striking magnolias in William Land Park’s WPA Rock Garden. She recommends ‘Vulcan,’ ‘Galaxy’ and ‘Nigra,’ which begin blooming at the end of February or early March. Their flowers always create a sensation when she brings them to Perennial Plant Club meetings.
Many of the showiest flowering trees are ornamental fruit trees, including flowering plums, pears, peaches, cherries and crab apples. The timing of their bloom varies, but generally the plums bloom first, followed by cherries and peaches. Crab apples bloom later yet, and flowering pears bloom as a closing act, so late in the spring that they almost seem like an afterthought.
Some of the ornamental fruit trees bear small fruit, often tasteless or inedible. The fruit can be an annoyance when it attracts rodents and birds and drops on the ground. If you don’t want fruit, do your research carefully and hope that the plant you buy is labeled correctly.
Other trees are valued as much for their decorative fruit as for their ephemeral blossoms. Crab apples, for example, have a stunning flower display that lasts only a week or two, but can bear bright little apples that add color for months.
There are edible varieties of all of the flowering fruit trees that I’ve mentioned, yielding both beauty and bounty. Almonds, too, are very decorative. If you don’t want to turn your yard into an orchard, you can intersperse fruit trees into your overall landscape design. Be aware, however, that neighborhood critters may think that you’ve provided this luscious food just for them.
Dogwoods don’t have edible fruit, and they don’t have showy flowers, either. The beautiful pink or white “flowers” that unfurl in mid-spring are really large bracts, a form of leaf, that surround a cluster of tiny flowers. You can see mature Eastern dogwoods, Cornus florida, throughout the Fabulous Forties and Land Park. Their bare-branched bloom is striking, but the trees can be plagued with fungal disease. An Asian species, Cornus kousa, is more disease resistant and produces its flowers later in the spring after it’s clothed in leaves.
Many of the spring-flowering trees are small and easy to fit into a landscape or border. Some spring-flowering shrubs can be trained to a single trunk and grown as a tree, such as Ceanothus ‘Ray Hartman.’ Ceanothus is called California lilac, but it really bears little resemblance to the intensely fragrant lilac, Syringa. Many Syringa species and varieties need winter chill in order to bloom, so you might want to choose one of the types that have been developed for southern California, such as ‘Lavender Lady.’ Other stunning spring shrubs are flowering quince and California native redbud and flannel bush.
If your neighborhood’s flowering trees aren’t enough for you, take a road trip. You can see California natives in the Sacramento Historic City Cemetery, gaze at redbuds along scenic Cache Creek on Highway 16, enjoy orchards up and down the valley, or spot lilacs blooming bounteously in the foothills. They are the crowning touch to the season’s vivid green grass and wildflowers. Let the flower dance begin!
Anita Clevenger is a Sacramento County UC Master Gardener. For answers to gardening questions, call the Master Gardeners at 875-6913 or go to ucanr.org/sites/sacmg/. Master Gardeners will prune fruit trees at Fair Oaks Horticulture Center on Saturday, Feb. 23, from 9 a.m. to noon.