Our Other Foliage Season

April 14, 2012

Our “Other” Foliage Season

Washington DC hosted its annual Cherry Blossom Festival back in March. In NH we wait until long after those petals have fallen for our earliest flowering trees to bloom. The flowering window for native forest trees and ornamental landscape trees is narrow. Cool April temperatures slow the flower show now opening after its early jumpstart from warm March weather. Hot weather by May hastens petal fall.

Native “Flowering Shad”

In April, forest trees begin to leaf-out casting shade which seems odd at first. As leaf buds unfurl, tiny flowers of maples bloom inconspicuously. Along roadside edges, watch for a small native tree with multiple common names - it will burst into stunning white bloom this week. It’s called "Flowering Shad" or "Shadbush" or "Serviceberry" and "June Berry." The small shrubby tree grows in a clump of smooth, gray-barked stems that blossom when its first leaves emerge from their bud scales. Gardeners now plant native Shad as a popular ornamental landscape specimen tree.

Juneberry fruits are not tasty for people, yet wild birds and mammals seek them avidly when few other fruits are available in June. The sugary high-carbohydrate fruit is important to birds in the latter half of nesting season when hungry nestlings grow, fledge and disperse.

The "Shad" references an historical era when immense runs of migratory shad fish returned to New England rivers including the Merrimack each April, just when shad trees bloomed.

The lore behind "Serviceberry" holds that traditional 19th century funerals could commence in April once soil had thawed sufficiently to dig graves and hold services for those who had died during the long New England winter. Graveside services were brightened by flowering "Services-berry" blossoming outside the stonewall-bound early burial grounds.

Flowering Crab 

The popularity of flowering crabapple trees for ornamental landscaping is huge. It’s a hardy tree with attractive flowers, shade leaves and autumn foliage. The autumn fruits benefit the “frugivorous” (fruit-eating) birds including blue jays, robins and waxwings whose winter diet comprises frozen fruit. Persistent fruits that remain on bare branches of flowering trees attract flocks of cedar waxwings to suburban backyards, college campuses, shopping plazas, supermarkets, fast food restaurants and banks where flowering crabapple and callery pear are the tough ornamental well-suited for planting as urban street trees. Another reason we seem to see more robins every winter too I suspect.

In April, white and pink flowering varieties of ornamental crabapples precede the true apple bloom of May which attract insect pollinators including honeybees and bumble bees. Newly arriving hummingbirds and orioles obtain flower nectar to fuel their breeding seasons. Remember the “birds and the bees” talk? Spring is just like that!

Where human happiness follows

Studies by many international health practitioners report more rapid patient healing when hospital windows afford natural light and views to adjacent green space or daily access to natural settings. Placing living plants in hospital settings produces positive therapeutic results and faster rates of healing. Green leaves and spring flowers make people happy. Ask any florist!

If human health research is accurate, the annual April unfurling of gazillions of green leafy pennants heralds a corresponding spike in human happiness and well-being. Such is the duality of living in our northern latitude: we exhibit nearly universal autumn introspection and conversely each spring, we emerge from our collective regional winter den as manic extroverts. We squint in the warm, bright sunshine as pink buds and green leaves and lawns tint our landscape.

The fleeting beauty and charm of this “other” spring foliage season exceeds that of our more famous autumnal display when busloads of leaf peeper tourists arrive. I feel those October yellow, orange and red colors of dying leaves are garish and depressing, particularly when I don’t have my winter cordwood supply split and stacked.

I’ve long suggested we market this new tourist season turning green into go (or vice-versa). April leaf-peepers will find emerging tree flowers and foliage in soft pastels, like an array of sweet Easter candy. In a few short weeks, the NH hills are transformed by the gauzy rising tide that imparts a soft watercolor wash to the hardwood canopy. Maple, birch, beech and oak transition from lavender, pale-yellow, soft pink and light gold into an astonishing array of colors - all of them green.

Only those with pollen allergies fail to smile at the spectacular April display.

Spring foliage season is as ephemeral as it is magical. Our less-celebrated foliage season arrives on the heels of mud season and at the cusp of mosquitoes. Hardwood buds burst into tiny flowers while tender leaves unfurl as tiny banners. Wetland fern fiddleheads unravel into delicate neon green fronds overnight.

The fairest days of summer all lie ahead - not a single weekend has been squandered doing yard work or washed-out by rain. All the promise of a sun-ripened summer is contained in the first faint rustle of emerging leaves on a warm April breeze when shade first returns to our forests.

Hope springs eternal. Spring itself provides a universal health care prescription. Spring foliage may be the most ancient natural balm for collective regional mental health, but only for those who partake. In order to gain the positive mental health benefits of spring foliage, we must immerse ourselves in our great natural wealth of forests and trees.