It’s spring, a time when a man’s thoughts turn to . . . flowers, of course. (At least this man’s thoughts, some of them, do.) Sure, I’ve been reveling in the colorful progression of blossoms beginning, this year, with cornelian cherry and hellebore on about the first day of spring, and moving on to forsythia, plum, Asian pear, flowering quince, European pear, cherry, and — probably by the time you read this — apple followed by shipova. All this is the flamboyance of spring.

This year, I’ve also been admiring a few of the more subtle flowers of spring.


Some of the maples are now in bloom. Sugar maples (Acer saccharum) is perhaps the prettiest and most useful of the maples. Unfortunately, it’s also the least tolerant of compacted or wet soils, or a warming climate. The beauty of sugar maples lies not just in the leaves’ autumn show of color or the majestic form of an older tree.

Acer, sugar maple flowers, closest

Acer, sugar maple flowers, closest

Check out sugar maple’s flowers. They dangle like pale green wisps of lace from the branches, subtly attractive in their own right viewed up close and especially so in the forest. As a prominent species in the Shawangunk Mountains here in New York’s Hudson Valley, en masse the trees suffuse the view of the mountainside from afar with a welcoming softness.
View of Shawangunk Mountains
Red maple I(Acer rubrum) is another very attractive — and very variable — maple. The showiness of its blossoms relies on color, a deep, deep red. The blossoms arrive very early, and what I’m seeing is the aftermath of the blooms, clusters of red seeds, their wings spread as if ready to fly, which they soon will.

Acer, red maple seeds

Acer, red maple seeds

Not nearly as appealing, in many ways, as a tree, but even more cosmopolitan in its environmental tolerance, is silver maple (A. saccharinum). Flowers are blah. The tree tends to drop branches. No autumn color to speak of, either. It is fast-growing, though. As expected, the roots are equally fast growing and shallow. I once lived in a house in front of which grew two giant silver maples. One day, while investigating a clogged water line in the crawlspace, I came upon what looked like a thick, half-buried leg of an elephant. It was one of the silver maple’s roots.

The last —unfortunately too common — maple around here whose flowers or fruits I’ve been noticing is Norway maple (A. platinoides). This species was once widely planted as an ornamental but is now frowned upon because it casts a lugubrious shade beneath which grass or, in the woods, many wildflowers have difficulty growing. It’s an invasive plant that can displace sugar maple in wild settings. In autumn, leaves hang on for a long time, long enough to look forlorn after being burned by a freeze or, barring that freeze, for occasional leaves to begin turning a sickly yellow before naturally dropping.

Norway maple flowers

Norway maple flowers

Norway maple’s flowers, viewed up close, are surprisingly attractive, something like those of sugar maple as clusters of them hang downward on stalks, something like a chandelier. But with none of the grace of sugar maple’s long flower stalks.


I believe I have earned the title of “phenologist.” No, I haven’t been measuring skulls to assess character, which is the realm of phrenology. Phenology, which I have been practicing, is the study of climate as reflected in the natural cycles of plants and animals.

For the past 30 plus years, I have recorded the dates on which various plants have blossomed or ripened their fruits. My interest has been horticultural: In spring, plants blossom after experiencing a certain accumulation of warm temperatures; fruit ripening reflects, to a lesser degree, further accumulation of warmth. The amount of warmth needed to bring on those flowers or ripen fruits varies with the kind of plant, sometimes even with the variety of plant. 

Forsythia in bloom

Forsythia in bloom

Depending on late winter and spring weather, blossoming dates for various plants can vary quite a bit. Microclimate also plays a role, so I’ve tried to always note blossoming on the same plant from year to year. This year, forsythia bloomed about April 9th, which is pretty early as compared with previous years although in 2010 it bloomed on April 1st and that was topped by 2012’s bloom on March 20th. Contrast that with 1984, when it bloomed on April 25th! On average, bloom dates have crept earlier and earlier over the years, a reflection of global warming.

In the garden, seeds and seedlings shouldn’t be sown or transplanted until the soil has warmed sufficiently, which likewise reflects that accumulation of warmth. Some seeds or seedlings require more warmth before they can grow (or survive) than do others. Knitting all these phenomena together, I plant, for example, lettuce seeds when forsythias blossom, broccoli transplants when pears blossom, and sweet corn when honeysuckles blossom. 

Pears in bloom

Pears in bloom

These sunny days and balmy temperatures are heavenly – except that they’re also coaxing earlier blossoms from my fruit trees, blossoms that could get burned by subsequent frosty nights. The earlier these trees bloom, the more chance for those blossoms to get burnt on a subsequent frosty night.

The historical average date of the last killing frost around here is about the middle of May. Even warming trends might accommodate a frosty night or two that can wipe out a whole season’s harvest of apples or peaches, the first of which is about to bloom and the second of which has bloomed.

Still, it’s a glorious time of year, with no small contribution from the maples.


Spring, You’re Late

Seems like everyone — in the northern half of the country east of the Rockies, at least — is talking about this spring’s weather. Robert Frost (in “Two Tramps in Mud Time”) had it right when he wrote: 

The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You’re one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you’re two months back in the middle of March.” 

Perhaps T. S. Elliot (in “The Waste Land”) was right in writing that “April is the cruelest month.”

But has this past April really been crueler than most? Usually I pooh-pooh day to day impressions. But even Sammy, who usually bounds over to me from his doghouse each morning when he sees me, stayed in and watched as I crossed the yard a couple of weeks ago over ground recently covered with a dusting of snow. Sammy, the dog, and snow

Phenology, the study of climate as reflected in the natural cycles of plants and animals, is one way to give the weather an objective assessment. For decades, I’ve recorded the dates on which various plants have blossomed. My interest was horticultural: In spring, plants blossom after experiencing a certain accumulation of warm temperatures. So various blossoms can be indicators of when it’s safe to sow seeds or set out plants of various vegetables and flowers. 

Depending on late winter and spring weather, blossoming dates for various plants can vary quite a bit. Microclimate also plays a role, so I’ve tried to always note blossoming on the same plant from year to year. Back in 2010, forsythia bloomed about April 1st, the earliest I’ve ever recorded. Contrast that with 2009, when it bloomed about April 15th, or back in 1984, when it bloomed on April 25th!

This year, forsythia bloomed on April 23rd, late again. Over the years, forsythia bloom dates average around the middle of April, so this year is definitely late. All these forsythia bloom dates are for forsythia on my farmden, which is in a local cold pocket so blossoms spread their yellow petals a few days later than plants even just a few miles away.

Another key indicator for me is cornelian cherry (Cornus mas), whose yellow blossoms are most welcome because they frequently open the first day of spring. Not this year though; mine bloomed on April 20th.

Daffodils typically bloom here in early April, although back in 2016, they bloomed on March 25th. This year, April 21st.

One of my favorite blooming shrubs, also producing very tasty fruit, is Nanking cherry (Prunus tomentosa).

Nanking cherry hedge

Nanking cherry hedge

Stems on the row of them along my driveway typically form a veritable wave of pinkish white blossoms around the middle of April. As I write, it’s April 24th and that wave is just building. If warm weather continues, it should roll in within a few days. (Update: It did, on the 28th.)

Plants Tell Me When To Plant

It’s tradition to plant corn when “oak leaves are the size of mouse ears.” Considering phenology, I take timing one step further, planting, for example, lettuce seeds

Setting out onion transplants

Setting out onion transplants

when forsythias blossom, cabbage transplants when apples blossom, and — this is a tough one — peas a week BEFORE forsythias blossom.

So yes, it has been a “cruel” spring, if you’re wanting some warmth and sun. Then again, this cool weather has retarded, so far at least, blossom development of my fruit trees, which is a good thing. The later these trees blossom, the less chance for the open flowers to be burned by subsequent frosts.

Peas, Where Are You?

The downside to this atypically cool spring weather is that it has delayed planting of annual vegetables and flowers, or their growth if they’s already been planted. I sowed peas, as I always do, on April 1st. Still no sign of the poking up through the ground. I’m going to go outside, scratch around in one of the pea rows, and check if the seeds have either sprouted or rotted.

I’m back. The peas are okay, their first bits of green are peeking up through the surface of the ground.

No matter if the season is unseasonably cool or warm, by this time of year the progression of blossoms provides a feast for the eyes and the nose.

Beans, Beans, . . . and Blueberries

Deb and David gather around the kitchen table as the contenders are brought forth, each steeped in its own cooking juice in a custard cup. The event is the long-awaited bean test, home-grown Cannellini beans vs. store-bought Cannellini beans vs. home-grown Calypso (Yin Yang) beans. Mostly, we are interested in

whether the home-grown Cannellini’s would be better than the store bought, a possible reason being that stored, dry beans get tougher with age.

I planted a very short row of the Cannellini and of Calypso beans back in the middle of May. I do mean short, only about 5 feet each. After all, this planting was for testing, not for production.
The beans I planted, as well as kidney beans, pinto beans, and some other dry beans, and green beans, share the same botanical lineage, Phaseolus vulgaris. All can be grown just like green beans except that for dry beans, the harvest is of mature seeds, so a longer season is required, typically around 90 days or so.
After my dry bean harvest, I transferred an aliquot of each variety into its own glass custard cup, did the same with an aliquot of store-bought Cannellini beans, and filled the custard cups with water. The cups went into a larger pot with an inch of water and the whole setup went onto the woodstove to simmer for a couple of days. Retrieval and cooling bring us to this moment.
No need for a blindfold test because the differences were dramatic. The results? All three of us gave the home-grown Cannellini’s the highest marks in terms of creamy texture and good flavor. Second best was Calypso. It appears that I’ll be devoting more space next year to growing Cannellini beans.
In addition to mouth-watering flavor and creamy texture, Cannellini beans (and other white beans) are rich in phosphatidylserine. The thinnest thread of evidence suggests that phosphatidylserine might — just might — improve memory and cognition, as well as confer other health benefits. Cow brains are among the richest sources of phosphatidylserine, but I’d rather be forgetful than get mad cow disease.
Lowbush blueberries abound in the woods around here but are conspicuously absent from gardens and landscapes — except in my front yard. I grow them for “luscious landscaping,” that is, for both beauty and

good eating. Plants recently shed their crimson leaves, which is how they show off in autumn. In spring, they show off their nodding, bell-shaped, white flowers, and all summer long, the ground is blanketed with healthy, bluish-green leaves on stems a foot and a half high.

Next summer, I know my plants won’t fruit because yesterday I cut all the stems right down to the ground. Best yields come from stems that are one-year-old and two-years-old, so stems have to grow at least a year before they can flower and fruit.
Traditionally, and under natural conditions, periodic pruning of lowbush blueberries was done with fire. Fire had the additional advantage of knocking out some potential weed and pest problems. Of course, burning also has its hazards and I’m not seeking any excitement in the blueberry bed along the east side of my house beyond a big crop of berries. So I went at the plants this week with hedge shears and hand shears, cutting the stems as low as possible. The lower to the ground plants are lopped back, the fewer the resulting stems next summer, and the more energy the plants can channel into fruit buds for the following year’s harvest.
I don’t really want to sacrifice all of next year’s lowbush blueberry crop so I lopped to the ground only half the planting. Next year, that half that was spared my shears will bear and next autumn I’ll cut those stems down. The summer after next, this year’s lopped down plants will bear fruit, and next year’s lopped down plants won’t. And so the harvest can continue hopscotching merrily along, keeping the plants productive and me in berries every year.

Sharing the lowbush blueberry bed is an Arnold’s Promise witchhazel shrub getting its digs in to offer what is perhaps the final oddity for a generally odd growing season. Year after year it has reliably flowered in March. This year it’s flowering right now, probably because of cool weather followed by extended warm weather duping the shrub into acting as if it was, in fact, March.
One problem with November flowering is that fewer or no flowers will open this coming March. Another problem is that I’d rather see the flowers in March, coming in other heels of winter’s relatively achromatic landscape.