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May trees and shrubs

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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, while in 2017 it appeared in the second week but lasted until the end of the first week of May. In 2012 and 2018 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: the last week of April in 2011 and 2014, the first week of May in 2008 and 2017, the second week in 2009, 2012 and 2018, 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 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, 2014 and (in a few places) 2017, from the second second week in 2018, the second to the third week in 2013, and in the second half of May in 2012, 2015 and 2016. In 2013, 2016 and 2018 wild cherry blossom also lasted into the first week of May, and in 2013 and 2016 blackthorn blossom did too.

On chalk downland (and the sides of railway cuttings through chalk) wayfaring tree continues to put out its large white flowers in the first half of the month. They can last till the third week (only till the first week in 2011, when flowering started in late April)

Much more inconspicuously, holly puts out cluster of tiny white flowers, if it has not already 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 the 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 bloom, 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. The hedgerow climbers white and black bryony can also start flowering from the third week. 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 the more normal flowering time is early June. Flower buds may also appear on privet.

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 blooms (from mid April in places in 2014, from the first week of May in 2017, from the second week in 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2018, and from mid month in 2010 and 2016). Once out it lasts a couple of weeks.

Lilac, which usually starts in mid April, continues to flower until around mid month. (In 2018 it came out at the start of May and lasted till the third week, and in 2016 appeared in early May, lasting till the end of the month). In addition you can see the climbing plant wisteria turning buildings a mass of purple, fading in the third week. (Again, it did not start till the first week in 2016 and the second week in 2018, in both cases 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 and 2017) but often does not appear till May, starting in the first week in 2012 and 2015 and the second week in 2013 and 2016. Once out, it lasts about three weeks.

This is also the month for garish rhododendrum flowers, which are quite variable in their timing: many fading late in the month but some lasting into June. New leaf shoots seem to appear once flowering is over. (It is not the only evergreen to do this: yew, ivy and holly also have new foliage in May, the new leaves being a much brighter green than the old ones)

In 2016 some forsythia also remained in flower into the first week of May and sometimes you see rosemary in flower in gardens. The yellow blooms of the garden shrub kerria japonica pleniflora can survive into the first week to ten days of the month. Towards the end of the month snowberry may start to put out its tiny pink flowers. Firethorn (pyracantha) and cotoneaster sometimes also flower at this time.

The last trees to leaf

By the end of April most trees are in leaf, and in the first week or two of May they retain the bright vivid green of new growth. A notable contrast is whitebeam, whose leaves are pale and greyish, and look very conspicuous in the landscape. Often - eg in 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016 - they are only just coming out in the first half of May. Soon after the leaves appear the tree also produces white flowers.

Another major laggard when it comes to putting out leaves is ash: in 2009, 2010, 2015, 2017 and 2018 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 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: towards the end of the month it is putting out what will be its flower tassels, but they do not flower yet. Other trees whose leaves may still be relatively small in early May include alder, oak, poplar, lime, beech, birch, hazel and London plane.

Sycamore and field maple continue to flower in the first part of the month. Beech does too - the male flowers hanging down, and the female ones 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.) From early in May (not till mid month in 2018 and the end of the month in 2016) lime puts out tiny flower buds that hang down on winged stalks: they do not actually flower yet, however.

The first fruits and seeds

May also sees the first fruits, seeds and nuts appearing on trees. At the start of the month the female catkins of sallow and goat willow (aka pussy willow) disperse in a shower of white fluff (not till the second half in 2016 and 2018 and the end of the month in 2013: in 2017 many catkins fell in the first week or so, but some survived to fall in the last week). On crack willow the green female catkins stay on longer, turning fluffy white with seed and falling at the end of May or in early June. White willow (which often hybridises with crack willow) keeps both male and female catkins into May (on different trees): the yellow male ones fall early in the month: the green female ones remain until late in the month and then turn fluffy and fall.

By mid month (sometimes a bit later) 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 produces its characteristic seed clusters early in the month, and once the petals of horse chestnut flowers fall away they 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): this 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 - though the timing of this is very variable and some old seed cases seem to remain on the tree. 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 (the fertilised female flowers) on larch trees. By the month's end these are full-sized, 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: also green rowan and cherry laurel berries, as well as green haws on hawthorn, tiny apples (if the trees have blossomed in late April), tiny buds that will become the nuts on hazel, flat green seeds on wayfaring tree, and diminutive green cones on alder. In woods you may see green redcurrants forming on that shrub after its flowers have faded. By the end of the month cherries may be showing a reddish blush. In May 2011, after a hot, dry spring, haws also ripened to a red colour by the end of the month, something that is not supposed to happen until July.

More May pages:

© Peter Conway 2006-2018 • All Rights Reserved

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