Just when we really need it, we begin to see colorful blossoms on flowering plums, ornamental cherries, crabapples, magnolias and dogwoods.
NO MATTER WHETHER spring is early or late, warm or disappointing, trees open their blossoms in an age-old sequence. Flowering plums, ornamental cherries, crabapples, magnolias and dogwoods hold their own even now, when nature is on the cusp of flaunting her flamboyance to the max.
As each species peaks and begins to drop its blossoms, we have a few precious days with clouds of petals overhead and underfoot. The Japanese, in a ceremony called “Hanami,” have celebrated this moment since the third century by picnicking beneath the “sakura” (cherry trees) as the petals fall.
Perhaps the closest we come to this in Seattle is a stroll through the University of Washington quad when the grid of Yoshino cherry trees (Prunus x yedoensis) bursts into bloom in early April. Their spreading shapes and dark bark show off the palest pink blossoms. To look up through those flowers at a stormy spring sky is testament to the yin/yang delights of the season.
While ornamental cherries can be disease-prone in our climate, Yoshinos do better than most. My favorite is P. x yedoensis ‘Akebono’ because it’s smaller than the species, and the flowers are large, semidouble and warm pink. P. ‘Cascade Snow’ is recommended by the Great Plant Picks program as one of the most disease-resistant cherries for the west side of the Cascades. Its blossoms are single and snow white, and in autumn the leaves turn bronze and yellow.
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Crabapples tend to be more adaptable and healthier than ornamental cherries, although not as magnificent. Their colorful fruit feeds the birds, and many are smaller, so easier to slip into urban gardens. If your space is limited, consider the dwarf, profusely flowering Sargent’s crab (Malus toringo ssp. sargentii ‘Tina’) that tops out around 5 feet high and 6 feet wide.
But back to the beginning of the parade. Purple-leaf ornamental plums flower first, coming into pink bloom right about now. While their pastel haze followed by maroon leaves is showy, you’re left with a dark shadow of a tree once it leafs out. Crimson Pointe flowering plum (Prunus x cerasifera ‘Cripoizam’) is a good choice for smaller gardens, where its slim, columnar shape won’t dominate. But if it’s drama you’re looking for, try P. cerasifera ‘Krauter Vesuvius’, with purple-black leaves, soft-pink single flowers and a spreading shape.
Shrubby star magnolias (M. stellata) also bloom in March, with big splays of fragrant, white spidery blossoms on spreading branches. In late April, M. ‘Elizabeth’, the first yellow-flowering magnolia and still one of the best, opens its large, sweet-smelling, cup-shaped flowers. And between these two beauties blooms an artist’s palette worth of covetable magnolias.
Dogwoods are a Northwest favorite because of the glory of our tall, native Pacific dogwood, now sadly diseased. There are healthier choices, like C. ‘Eddie’s White Wonder’ with huge creamy bracts. You can see a show of these at the Olympic Sculpture Park in late April.
The rhythm of these trees opening their flowers, then dropping their petals as they leaf out, is deeply comforting, a reassuring seasonal touchstone. As I watch the cherries bud up, I wonder how far we have to go along the path of climate change before such patterns are disrupted. Think how disorienting it would be if at some point an altered climate caused the dogwoods to flower before the cherry trees. For now, let’s get outside and enjoy the measured and familiar pageant of springtime unfolding.