Other May pages: Woodland, meadow and field flowers • Wayside flowers • Downland and seaside flowers • Birds • Butterflies and insects • Weather
Put your cursor over any photo to see its caption, or click here to see more May blossom and tree photos.
The blossom sequence continues in May with apple blossom, both on orchard trees and on the wild crab apple, but this is very variable in its timing. In 2011 and 2014 it appeared in the second week in April and was over before May started, but in 2012 it appeared in the last week in April and lasted till the second week of May, while in 2010, 2013 and 2016 it did not get going till early May and lasted until the third week.
It is followed by hawthorn blossom (also known simply as "may"), which lasts two to three weeks. Again the timing is quite variable: hawthorn came out in the last week of April in 2011 and 2014, the first week of May in 2008, the second week in 2009 and 2012, the third week in 2010, 2015 and 2016, and not until the fourth week in 2013. At its height it can look like dollops of ice cream, and as it goes over it can sometimes turn a pretty shade of pink. The traditional saying "Ne'er cast a clout till May be out" (usually interpreted as "do not remove clothing, ie expect warmer weather, until the end of May") may in fact refer to the appearance of hawthorn blossom, which does often mark the start of gentler weather.
The enormous candle-like flower spikes of horse chestnuts are also at their best in early May, having started to come out in late April and fading by the second or third week (out in the second week and fading in the fourth week in 2015 and 2016). Much less common (in the south east at least) is rowan, which puts out white flowers. This happened from the fourth week of April in 2011 and 2014, from the second to the third week in 2013, and in the second half of May in 2012, 2015 and 2016. In 2013 and 2016 wild cherry and blackthorn blossom also lasted into the first week of May.
On chalk downland (and the sides of chalk railway cuttings) the wayfaring tree continues to put out its large white flowers in the first half of the month. They can last till the third week. (In 2011 wayfaring tree flowered in late April, fading in the first week of May).
Much more inconspicuously, holly puts out cluster of tiny white flowers, if it has not done so in late April (in 2015 and 2016 this did not happen till mid May). There are both female and male flowers, both lasting a couple of weeks, the female having a green centre that will become the berry, but it is remarkably hard to spot either, given how common this plant's berries are in December. If you do see a holly in full flower, it is such a surprising sight that you might mistake it for a garden shrub.
Early May also sees gorse in full flower, though it fades away as the month goes on. On heathland you sometimes see yellow broom.
From mid month onwards a new wave of shrubs blooms, most notably large white elderflowers (not till the fourth week in 2015, the end of the month in 2010 and not till the second week in June in 2013) as well as the flowers of guelder rose and spindle. Right at the end of the month you might get some dog rose and burnet rose, as well as dogwood and bramble (ie blackberry) flowers, though for all these cases the more normal flowering time is early June.
Garden shrubs and escapees
Other May colour comes from garden tree and shrubs, some of which can also hop the fence into semi-wild places. For example the month sees the wonderful laburnum tree in flower, with its great dripping clusters of yellow (from the second week in 2012, 2013 and 2015, from mid month in 2010 and 2016, but from mid April in places in 2014). Once out it lasts a couple of weeks.
Lilac (which starts in mid April) also continues to flower until around mid month (not starting till early May and lasting till the end of the month in 2016), and you can see the climbing plant wisteria turning buildings a mass of purple, fading in the third week (not starting till the first week in 2016 and lasting till the end of the month).
Along railway lines and along the edges of urban paths you may see fabulous display of pink flowers draped over a fence - the climber clematis montana. It can start to flower in late April (eg from mid April in 2014) but often does not appear till May, starting in the first week in 2012 and 2015 and the second week in 2013 and 2016, and lasting about three weeks.
This is also the month for garish rhododendrum flowers, which can last well into June, while in 2016 some forsythia also remained in flower into the first week of the month. In both 2016 and 2016 the yellow blooms of the garden shrub kerria japonica pleniflora survived for the first ten days of May in places. Towards the end of the month snowberry may start to put out its tiny pink flowers.
The last trees to leaf
By the end of April all trees are usually in leaf, and in the first week or two of May they also retain that bright vivid green of new growth. A notable contrast is whitebeam, whose leaves are pale and greyish, and look very conspicuous in the landscape. (In 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016 these were only just coming out in the first half of May). Later in the month (near the start of the month in 2014) the tree produces white flowers.
One major laggard when it comes to putting out leaves can be ash: in 2009, 2010 and 2015 its leaves were only very small in the first half of May, and in 2012, 2014 and 2016 many trees were still bare at the start of the month and barely beyond budburst by mid month. Early in the month the female flowers can look at a casual glance like new leaves, since once fertilised they expand into green fans which then droop and become seed clusters (though in 2012 no seeds at all were produced). It can often be late in May before the foliage on ash is fully grown.
Sweet chestnut also usually waits till early May to leaf and its leaves can still be small even late in the month. Though they have already appeared in April, leaves on alder may remain small early in May too, and in 2011 and 2012 that was true for oak leaves as well. In 2013 oaks only had flower tassels in the first half of the month, with leaves appearing in the second half. In 2016 alder, poplar, lime, beech, birch, hazel and London plane leaves were all still small in early May, while Norway maple flowers did not fade until the end of April, with the leaves rapidly following in early May and soon growing to full size.
Sycamore and field maple continue to flower in the first part of the month. From early in May (not till the end of the month in 2016) lime puts out tiny flower buds that hang down on stalks, which look a lot like its fruits do later in the year: they do not start to open yet, however. Beech also flowers - the male ones hang down, and the female ones are erect. (In 2011 all beech flowers were over by the end of April, however, while in 2012 some trees were only just starting to leaf in the first week and there were no flowers at all).
The first fruits and seeds
May also sees the first fruits, seeds and nuts appearing on trees. At the start of the month (not till the second half in 2016 and the end of the month in 2013) the female catkins of sallow and goat willow (aka pussy willow) disperse in a shower of white fluff. On white willow and crack willow (which often hybridise and are common by riversides as well as larger trees in parks) the green female catkins stay on longer and are only starting to seed at the end of May. Weeping willow also sheds its seeds in the latter part of the month.
By mid month sycamore and field maple flowers are morphing into the familiar winged seeds, while Norway maple has them right from the start of the month. Hornbeam has already produced its characteristic seed clusters, and the petals of horse chestnut flowers have fallen away to reveal tiny green conkers, initially erect like the flower spikes but destined to start drooping in June. Many fall off before becoming ripe in the autumn.
Ash seeds are mentioned above: forming from the female flowers by the month's end they are fully formed green "keys" hanging down in bunches. Meanwhile birch produces a cylindrical green fruit in May which looks very much like a fattened catkin (it is in fact the fertilised female catkin), which remains on the tree until winter, when it finally breaks up into seeds. Fuzzy green nut cases are seen on beech trees almost as soon as its flowers fall mid month.
In the first or second week (or sometimes in April: but not till late May/early June in 2012) the air in London parks can also be full of the fluffy flying seeds (completely infertile, as it is a hybrid) of London planes, which come from the globular seed cases they have retained all winter. Small new seed cases - which initially appear maroon-coloured but soon turn green - develop at this time from the flowers the tree produces in April.
You continue to see new red cones (actually the female flowers) on larch trees. By the month's end these are full-sized cones, maroon and smooth-looking in contrast to those from previous years which also remain on the tree.
Other unripe fruits you may see later in the month include tiny green plums, sloes, cherries and cherry plums and cherry laurel berries, as well as green haws on hawthorn, tiny apples (if the trees have blossomed in late April), tiny buds of nuts on hazel, and diminutive green cones on alder. In woods you may see green redcurrants forming on that shrub after its flowers have faded. In May 2011 after a hot, dry spring haws were even ripening to a red colour by the end of the month, something that is not supposed to happen until July, and ripe cherries were appearing.
More May pages:
- Woodland, meadow and field flowers
- Wayside flowers
- Downland and seaside flowers
- Butterflies and insects
© Peter Conway 2006-2016 • All Rights Reserved