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May trees and shrubs

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Picture: hawthorn blossom. Click here for 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. Some years (eg 2011, 2014 and 2020) it is over by the end of April, and in others it lasts into the first week (2017, 2019) or the second (2012, 2018). In 2010, 2013, 2016 and 2021 it did not get going till early May and lasted until the third week. In 2013, 2016 and 2018 wild cherry blossom also continued into the first week, while in 2021 it lasted till the second week. Blackthorn blossom also extended into the first week in 2013 and 2016, and in places in 2021.

They are followed by hawthorn blossom (also known simply as "may"), which lasts two to three weeks. Again the timing is quite variable, starting quite widely (though not universally) in mid April in 2020, in the last week of April in 2011 and 2014, the first week of May in 2008, 2017 and 2019, the second week in 2009, 2012, 2018 and 2021, 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. They usually fade by the second or third week, though in 2019 they lasted all month. (In 2015 and 2016 they faded in the fourth week, having not come until the second week, while in 2021 they faded at the end of the month, having not come out until the third week). Much less common in the south east is rowan, which puts out white flowers: this happened from mid April in 2020, the fourth week of April in 2011, 2014, 2019 and (in a few places) 2017; from the second week in 2018; and in the second half of May in 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2021. Whitebeam also flowers - see The last trees to leaf below.

On chalk downland (and the sides of railway cuttings through chalk) wayfaring tree (a shrub) 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, 2019 and 2020 when flowering started in mid April; until the end of the month in 2013 and 2021 when they did not start until the second week). Bird cherry - again, not very common in the south east - may last into the first half of May. The much more common cherry laurel usually flowers in April, but lasted into the first week in 2021, while in 2010 it did not start to flower until the start of May and lasted a week to ten days or so.

Holly puts out cluster of tiny white flowers, if it has not already done so in late April. There are both female and male flowers, both lasting a couple of weeks, and so usually over by mid May (though in 2015, 2016 and 2021 the flowers did not start until then). The female ones have a green centre that will become the berry, while the male ones have four stamens, 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, while on close inspection bilberry has little pink bell-shaped flowers in the first half.

From mid month onwards a new wave of shrubs bloom, most notably large white elderflowers (from the second week in 2020, not till the fourth week in 2015, the end of the month in 2010 and 2021, 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 (from mid month in 2020) you might get some dog 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 and you may just see the occasional flower on woody nightshade (also known as bittersweet).

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 showers of yellow blooms (from mid April in places in 2014, from the third week of April in 2020, the fourth week in 2019, from the first week of May in 2017, the second week in 2012, 2013, 2015, 2018 and 2021, and from mid May in 2010 and 2016). Once out, it lasts two to three weeks. Robinia, an ornamental street tree, has white flowers that look rather like laburnum.

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, while in 2016 it appeared in early May, lasting till the end of the month. In 2021 many were not fully out until the third week of May, but all had faded by the month's end). In addition you can see the climbing plant wisteria turning buildings a mass of purple right from the start of the month. It usually fades in the third week, but in 2018 and 2021 it lasted until the end of the month, having not come out till the second week in 2018.

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 was in flower as early as mid April in 2014 and 2020, while in 2017 it was out in the third week and in 2019 the last week of that month. But it often does not appear till May, starting in the first week in 2012 and 2015 and the second week in 2013, 2016 and 2021. Once out, it lasts about three weeks.

This is also the month for showy rhododendrum flowers, which start to fade late in the month but with some lasting into June. Other evergreens such as yew, ivy, holly, cherry laurel and box put out new foliage in May, the new leaves being a much brighter green than the old ones. Towards the end of the month some of the older leaves on ivy, holly and cherry laurel yellow and fall to the ground. Cotoneaster has new leaf shoots, but very thin and inconspicuous ones.

In 2016 some forsythia also remained in flower into the first week of May and very occasionally you see rosemary in flower in gardens, usually only in the first week, though in 2015 they lasted until the third and in 2021 until the end of the month. The yellow blooms of the garden shrub kerria japonica pleniflora can survive into the first week to ten days of the month. Firethorn (pyracantha) fairly often flowers in the last week or so of May, though this can be delayed until June. You may just see the tiny pink flowers of snowberry at the very end of the month.

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 to begin with. Often - eg in 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2021- they are only just coming out in the first half of May. Soon after the leaves appear, the tree also produces white flowers, which last for two weeks or so.

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 week of May, and in 2012, 2014, 2016, 2019 and 2021 they did not start in most places until the second week. It can often be late May before they are fully grown. In 2021 the picture was further complicated by the spreading of ash die-back disease, which caused a fair number of trees to put out little or no foliage. Early in the month the female flowers can at a casual glance look like leaves, since once fertilised they expand into green fans which then droop and become seed clusters. In 2014 and 2019 no seeds at all were produced, however.

Sweet chestnut also usually waits till early May to leaf and its leaves can still be small until mid month: towards the end of the month it is putting out what will be its flower tassels. Other trees whose leaves may still be relatively small in early May include alder, oak, lime, hazel, crack willow and white willow, while London plane leaves can be only around half their final size until the second half of the month.

Field maple continues to flower into the first week or so of May, while sycamore flowers can last in places until the end of the month. Beech flowers may also be seen at the start of the month - 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 the middle of the month (the start in 2020, the end in 2016 and 2019) 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. From as early as the start of the month, the female catkins of sallow and goat willow (aka pussy willow) disperse their seeds in a shower of white fluff, though the timing of this is quite variable and it can still be going on at the end of the month, or may not start until the second half. During shedding, the white seeds floating through the air are a very common sight and can be mistaken at a casual glance for gnats or other tiny insects.

On crack willow some yellow male catkins may still be on the tree at the start of the month, but they soon fall, sometimes looking like curly caterpillars on the ground. The female catkins (on different trees) remain green until the end of May or early June, when they turn fluffy white and release their seeds into the air, adding to the very similar pussy willow seeds floating around. White willow (which often hybridises with crack willow) keeps both male and female catkins into May (again, on different trees): the male ones turn yellow at the start of the month and soon start to fall, though some can remain on the tree until the third week: the female ones remain until late in the month or early in June and then turn fluffy and disperse.

Norway maple has seeds from the start of the month, but it is not until around the second week that field maple flowers begin morphing into the familiar winged seeds, while on sycamore this happens anytime from the second week to early June, depending on how long the flowers last (see above). They look quite fascinating when half way through this process - the new seeds forming in the midst of the dying flower. Sycamore seeds initially look like small horseshoes and only later grow to the large V shaped seeds that we are more familiar with. Just occasionally one or other of these species will shed some of its young seeds, presumably either surplus to requirements or blown off by the weather. Sycamore and field maple seeds also have a tendency to take on a reddish tinge.

Hornbeam produces its characteristic seed clusters early in the month, if it has not already done so at the end of April, though in 2020 there were hardly any due to very few male catkins appearing in April. Once the petals of horse chestnut flowers fall away later in the month 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 mid month they are fully formed green "keys" hanging down in bunches. Green nut cases with brown hairs are seen on beech trees almost as soon as its flowers fall mid month, and birch produces a green seed cylinder, 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. Elm seeds fall to the during the month, often alerting you to the presence of the tree which otherwise is rather inconspicuous in the landscape: the timing of this seems to be very variable, however. The ones you see are nearly always wych elms, which is actually our native species; one clue to identification is the sharply tapering point to their leaves. English elms, which once dominated the landscape, but were in fact an introduced species, are generally now only present as hedgerow shrubs.

The new seed balls of London plane, formed from the female flowers, are still brown and quite small at the start of the month: during May they get slowly bigger and turn more greenish, though they have not achieved full size by the end of the month. (All this is hard to see as they are high up and hidden among the foliage.) Last year's brown seed balls are also often still on the tree and sometimes they choose May to fall and disperse their seed, making a mess on city pavements - but timing for this is very variable. You can see maroon cones (the fertilised female flowers) on larch trees, about half-sized at the start of the month but full-sized and brown by the end, when they may only be distinguishable from last year's cones (which remain on the tree) by their smooth surface.

Unripe fruits you may see later in the month include tiny green plums, sloes, wild cherries and cherry plums: also green rowan and cherry laurel berries (the latter oval rather than round at this stage), as well as green haws on hawthorn (initially hidden in the dead remains of the flowers), tiny apples (if the trees have blossomed in late April), flat green seeds (sometimes tipped with red) 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 wild 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 2006-2021 • All Rights Reserved

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