Alight with White: Native Flowering Trees to Brighten Spring Days

April 14, 2012 by  
Filed under Native Plants, Spring Bloomers

It’s spring in southern New England! With deciduous trees still bare and most of the understory just waking up, the landscape remains largely brown and grey. But in a few short weeks, wherever there are trees, there’ll be shade. White flowers show up beautifully against both backgrounds, which may explain why so many of our native trees and shrubs have them.

We all know and love the flowering dogwood that’s so emblematic of our eastern woodlands, but in this post I’d like to sing the praises of two lesser known trees with white flowers that can make equally admirable additions to the landscape.

A tree-form shad in its April glory.

A tree-form shad in its April glory.

One early spring treat I relish seeing every year is our beautiful shad tree in bloom. It’s among the very first of our trees to flower. In a typical year here in the mid latitudes of Connecticut, I can reliably enjoy it in mid April at the same time as the colorful flush of the red maples. This year, after an exceptionally warm winter, it started flowering at least a week early and is still flowering now.

The shads (also called shadbush, shadblow, juneberry or serviceberry) are a rather taxonomically confused group of trees and shrubs, but don’t let that put you off. All shads are members of the genus Amelanchier. A. arborea is the largest, a tree that can rival a star magnolia in size and shape if given enough sun and good soil. A. canadensis and A. laevis are both smaller, more willowy, and usually multi-trunked. There are also hybrid crosses between these species, as well as shrubs forms native to both the East and West Coasts (A. stolonifera and A. lamarckii, respectively).

The tree forms are grown more as ornamental landscape plants, while the shrub forms are grown either for fruit or for naturalizing, since they tend to sucker. All of them have delicate flowers, borne when the plants are still leafless, that look like a bunch of short white streamers flying in the wind. In early summer they produce fruits the size and color of wild blueberries. These come and go in the blink of an eye because they are a favorite bird food, so bird lovers take note.

They are said to make great people food, too, but I’ve never cultivated them for their fruit and I suspect that humans who try might need to fence them to keep the birds from making off with everything.

To top things off, shads also offer good fall foliage, with yellows and oranges predominating.

In practice, shads for sale in nurseries aren’t always labeled with tremendous accuracy, so don’t rely too heavily on that. You just want to make sure you’ve bought a tree form if you want a tree, and a shrub form if you want a shrub. Plant all of them at the woodland edge just as you would a dogwood, and they’ll light up grey April days.

The unusual tassel-like flowers of fringe tree.

The unusual tassel-like flowers of fringe tree.

Fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus) is a little-known native that grows just barely large enough to be called a small tree. It’s a bit of an ugly duckling plant when young, grows slowly, and even old specimens can benefit from judicious pruning to reduce twiginess and yield a more refined shape. What you really grow a fringetree for is its flowers: a dense shower of white frills in late May and early June.

Chionanthus leafs out significantly later than most other woody plants, which has made more than one client call me in mid May to say, “I think we lost the fringe tree this winter,” but I have yet to see one die in the landscape if planted well. Buy the plant in flower if you can; plants are either male or female, and males have showier blossoms.

Both shad and fringe tree will do fine planted in loamy soil with average moisture and good drainage, although both can tolerate less than this ideal. Shads can be grown from the Canadian border and even points further north down through the Carolinas and into parts of Georgia. Fringe tree is cold hardy at least to Zone 5, but supposedly occurs naturally as far south as the Gulf of Mexico.

Lucky for me, they both do well in southern New England, where I love them as low care woodies that seem to capture and hold light in the garden in their season.