The earliest trees to flower in spring vary from region to region, since some of the earliest bloomers occupy a limited range. The showiest flowering trees open their blossoms later, often after the first leaves form. Early varieties catch our attention as the first relief from the grey branches and dreary skies of winter.
Carnelian Cherry Dogwood
Yellow flowers of this small understory tree open in small clusters in late winter and the beginning of spring. In some areas, this dogwood blooms as early as January or February. Clusters of bright-red berries ripen in late summer. Blooms resemble forsythia blossoms. The tree may grow from 15 to 25 feet tall.
Red maple first blooms in parts of the Great Smokies as early as late February. Blooming later at higher altitudes, the red maple bloom extends through April. Early red maple blooms provide honeybees with one of the first major pollen harvests of the year. Small reddish flowers open in clusters well before leaf buds open. The red maple offers brilliant fall foliage as well, in colours varying from yellow to bright red.
The small white flowers of this small tree provide the first spring colour in many oak and hickory forests. Serviceberry grows to 20 feet high in open areas. Ornamental varieties provide something of visual interest in all four seasons. Dense blooms turn the tree white in early spring, red berries offer colour in summer and fall colours give way to patterns of grey twigs growing at zigzag angles in winter.
Star magnolia's native range lies in Japan and the tree rarely naturalises in the U.S. Cultivated varieties grow to 20 feet in height and open star-shaped flowers up to 4 inches across in early spring. Each flower contains from 12 to 20 white petals. The star magnolia sometimes blooms before the final frost, which could cut the bloom short.
This native dogwood often comes to mind as the first flowering tree of spring even though others bloom before it. Large, white four-petaled blooms open before leaf buds break, adding white colour to the understory of hardwood forests shortly after serviceberry flowers. Cultivated varieties offer more colourful pink blossoms. Clusters of waxy red berries stay on the tree into late December.
The American redbud's flowering marks the arrival of warmer weather. Hummingbirds often return in conjunction with the redbud bloom. This early bloomer grows in poor soil with a crooked multitrunked form that gives the tree character but makes it prone to wind and storm damage. Pinkish-purple blossoms resemble sweet pea blooms. Redbud blossoms open along twigs and also sprout in dense clusters from the bark of main limbs and trunk.