Nature Menu

Introduction Beginner's Guide Where to find wild flowers Where to find butterflies Week by Week SWC_Nature

Nature and Weather in South East England

May trees and shrubs

Other May pages: Woodland, meadow and field flowersWayside flowersDownland and seaside flowersBirdsButterflies and insectsWeather

Picture: hawthorn blossom. Click here for more May blossom and tree photos.

The blossom sequence continues in May with apple blossom, both on garden and 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 of May (2017, 2019, 2022 and 2024), the second (2012, 2018) or even the third (2023). In 2010, 2013, 2016 and 2021 it did not get going till early May and lasted until the third week.

In 2013, 2016, 2018 and 2023 wild cherry blossom also continued into the first week, while in 2021 it lasted till the second week. Blackthorn blossom extended into the first week in 2013 and 2016, and in places in 2021 and 2023.

They are followed by hawthorn blossom (also known simply as "may"), which lasts two to three weeks. Again the timing is variable, starting quite widely (though not universally) in mid April in 2020 and 2024; in the last week of April in 2017, 2019 and 2022; the first week of May in 2008; the second week in 2009, 2012, 2018, 2021 and 2023; the third week in 2010, 2015 and 2016; and not until the fourth week in 2013.

At its height hawthorn blossom 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 2015, 2016, 2019 and 2023 they lasted into the fourth week (having not come out till the second week in 2015, 2016 and in many places 2023), while in 2021 they did not come out until the third week and lasted till the first week of June.

Much less common in the south east (mostly seen as a street tree, but sometimes also in woods) 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 first week of May in 2022 and 2024; from the second week in 2018 and 2023; and in the third week 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, 2014, 2017, 2020 and 2022 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 of May).

Bird cherry - not very common in the south east - is usually still at its best in the first week of May, putting out very attractive white flower spikes. The much more common cherry laurel generally flowers in April, but lasted into the first week of May 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 clusters of tiny white flowers, if it has not already done so in late April. There are both female and male ones, 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, while in 2023 it varied between the second and third week).

Female holly flowers 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 flowers out in force, though starting to show signs of going over: they fade away as the month goes on. On heathland you can see the glorious yellow flowers of broom, usually at their best in the last two weeks, though in 2024 it was in the first three weeks. In the same habitat 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 clusters of elderflowers (from the second week in 2020 and 2024, 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).

At the same time you get the rather inconspicuous flowers of spindle and the very distinctive ones of guelder rose. The latter always look as if they are half out, with a ring of petalled flowers around "buds" in the centre: but it is in fact the buds that are the active flowers, with the petalled ones being sterile.

A few adventurous bramble (ie blackberry) flowers may also open from mid month. Mixed in among them may be the very inconspicuous white flowers of wild raspberry, whose stems and leaves look remarkably similar to those of bramble, but whose flowers are quite different. They tend to be at their best in the middle of the month, but it varies widely.

The hedgerow climbers white and black bryony may start flowering in places from the third week but otherwise don't get going until June. (The black bryony flowers being very tiny and inconspicuous, the white bryony ones much more obvious and a kind of greeny-white.) At the end of the month you may see the occasional flower on woody nightshade (also known as bittersweet) or honeysuckle.

Green flower buds appear on dogwood in the first half of May: in the second half they turn white and may be opening into flowers in places at the very end of the month. At the same time (from mid month in 20917, 2020, 2022 and 2024) you might get some dog rose flowers, though they do not flower en masse until early June. Privet flower buds also appear, usually towards the end of the month but sometimes earlier.

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. The timing of this is quite variable. It started from mid April in places in 2014, from the third week of April in 2020; the fourth week in 2019 and 2024; from the first week of May in 2017 and 2022; the second week in 2012, 2013, 2015, 2018, 2021 and 2023; and from mid May in 2010 and 2016. After flowering, it produces a mass of tiny pea pod seeds, many of which fall to the ground, creating a mess on pavements.

Lilac, which usually starts in mid April, continues to flower until around mid month. (In 2018 and 2023 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 till 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, 2021 and in places 2023 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, 2020 , 2022 and 2024, while in 2017 it was out in the third week and in 2019 the last week of that month. But it sometimes does not appear till May, starting in the first week in 2012, 2015 and 2023 and the second week in 2013, 2016 and 2021. Once out, it lasts about three weeks.

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.

This is the month for showy rhododendrum flowers, which start to fade towards its end, but with some lasting into June. It also puts out new leaves, and this is true for other evergreens such as yew, ivy, cherry laurel and (later in the month) holly, the new leaves being a much brighter green than the old ones. In the second half some of the older leaves of ivy, holly and cherry laurel then turn yellow and fall to the ground.

Cotoneaster also has new leaf shoots, but very thin and inconspicuous ones, and towards the end of the month you may see its flower buds. Firethorn (pyracantha) fairly often flowers in the last week or so of May (from the third week in 2022 and 2024), 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 exception is common whitebeam, whose leaves are pale and greyish to begin with. In places (or in colder years) they may be 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 (typically, during the second and third weeks of the month).

Swedish whitebeam, which has much more normal leaves (ie, green and full out from the start of the month), also flowers during May. It more seen as a street or park tree than in the wild, and at a casual glance can look very similar to rowan during its flowering phase, though with very different foliage if you look closely.

Another major laggard when it comes to putting out leaves is ash: in many years they are still only very small in the first week of May, and in colder years (eg 2012, 2014, 2016, 2019 and 2021) they do not start until the second week. It can often be late May before they are fully grown. In recent years the picture has been further complicated by the spreading of ash die-back disease, which causes affected trees to put out little or no foliage.

Early in the month female ash 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 were produced at all, however.

Sweet chestnut also usually waits till early May to put out foliage and its leaves can still be small until mid month. Towards the end of the month the beginnings of its flower tassels are appearing. Other trees whose leaves may still be relatively small in early May include alder, oak, lime, hazel, wych elm, London plane, crack willow, white willow and goat willow or sallow.

Field maple continues to flower into the first week or so of May, and may also still have relatively small leaves at this time, while sycamore flowers can last in places until the end of the month. Beech flowers may also still be seen at the start of the month - the male flowers hanging down, and the female ones erect - though they soon fade, the fallen male ones making a thick carpet on the ground some years.

From the middle of the month (the start in 2020, the end in 2016, 2019 and 2023) lime puts out tiny flower buds that hang down on winged stalks: they do not actually flower yet, however.

The first seeds and fruits

May also sees the first fruits, seeds and nuts appearing. From the start of the month (not till the second half in 2026 and 2018), the female catkins of sallow and goat willow (aka pussy willow) disperse their seeds in a shower of white fluff. During shedding, which can last for much or all of the month, 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. The ground beneath trees can be thickly carpeted with fluff.

Female osiers (very rare in the south east and associated with wetland areas) release seeds at much the same time as goat willow.

On crack willow the yellow male catkins may have fallen in late April: if not, they do so in the first half of May, occasionally a bit later. On the ground they sometimes look like curly caterpillars. The female catkins (on different trees) remain green until the second half of May or the first half of June when they turn brown and produce lots of fluffy white seed. This they release 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 can turn yellow and start to fall any time from the start of the month to the second half. The female ones remain until the second half of May or early in June and then turn fluffy and disperse their seeds.

Norway maple has seeds from the start of the month, but it is often 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.

Sometimes one or other of these species will shed some of its young seeds, presumably either surplus to requirements or blown off by the weather: you see a carpet of them on the ground under the tree. The sycamore or field maple seeds that remain on the tree may take on a bright red tinge.

Hornbeam seed clusters are part-formed at the start of the month and grow into their final mature form in the second or third week, though in 2020 and 2024 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, at first they are in erect fans, but by mid month they are hanging down in bunches of green "keys". In 2022 there were almost none, due presumably to some failure of flowering.

Green nut cases with brown hairs are seen on beech trees almost as soon as its flowers fall in the first half, 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. Alder has the green cylindrical beginnings of its new cones.

Elm seeds fall 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 green fruits you may see in May include plums, sloes (tiny at the start of the month: more full-sized towards its end), cherry plums, and tiny apples (if the trees have blossomed in late April).

Wild cherries quickly grow to their full size, which is much smaller than a commercial cherry: by the end of the month they may be showing a reddish blush. Cascades of tiny green redcurrants appear from quite early in May and by mid month are full-sized.

Green cherry laurel berries - initially tiny - emerge from among the faded remains of the flowers in the early part of the month: in the second half they grow to near full-size, but are still oval, rather than the round shape they will eventually become. Green haws on hawthorn and the proto-berries on common whitebeam are also initially hidden under the dead remains of the flowers.

Once rowan has finished flowering it also produces green berries, and there are also tiny green ones on holly - the former centre of the female flowers, as mentioned above. Fading wayfaring tree flowers transform into flat heads of green seeds, sometimes tipped with red.

More May pages:

© Peter Conway 2006-2024 • All Rights Reserved

No comments:

Post a Comment