By John D. Kushla
Professor & Extension Forestry Specialist
Spring is a great time of year to identify trees as they flower. Phenology is the study of cyclical patterns in plants and animals. Trees emerge from dormancy in a pattern that is repeated year after year. Learning these patterns is another way to identify trees in our landscape.
The order in which trees bloom in the Spring is consistent. The first flowering tree is the red maple (Acer rubrum). This is the most common native tree found in the eastern United States. It is easy to see why this maple is named ‘red’. Its flowers are a brilliant scarlet as well as the newly emerging seeds and leaves (Figure 1).
Very soon after the red maple blooms, be looking for the magenta flowers of the Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis, Figure 2). This is a small tree, native to southern and Midwestern United States. The fruit of this tree is a legume. Such plants are special in the environment. Their roots have symbiotic bacteria that can metabolize atmospheric nitrogen, an important element in proteins.
Following the redbud, you will see the white blooms of pear trees. The Bradford pear (Pyrus calleryana) is a widely planted, exotic tree (Figure 3). While this tree will not self-fertilize, it readily crosses with wild pears, and has become invasive in the landscape. This tree has brittle wood and a tendency toward multiple leaders. These trees will often fall apart by 20 to 25 years of age, and are no longer recommended for planting.
Once you see pear blossoms, be looking for the flowering dogwood (Cornus florida). These trees are a common native in the eastern United States from Massachusetts to Florida, and west to Texas and Oklahoma. As with the redbud, the flowering dogwood is a small tree preferring to grow in the shade of larger trees. The flowers are most commonly white, but some varieties are pink. The dogwood fruit is eaten by a wide variety of birds and other animals.
Of course, many folks know when Spring has fully arrived by the pollen in the air. Our southern yellow pines have tiny flowers of separate sexes, relying on wind fertilization (Figure 4). Hence, they shed pollen profusely to disperse far and wide, to the dismay of those suffering allergies. When the pines are done, the oaks begin.
Obtain a copy of Mississippi Trees, a full color guide to the trees found in the state. This book is available through the MSU Extension Service, or download an app of this publication onto your iPhone®.