Six blossoms to spot through spring
‘Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough …’
So starts one of the best known poems of A Shropshire Lad, ingrained in many people’s childhoods to the extent that the lines can become disassociated with the glorious sight that Housman describes. It’s a reminder that we should take time to appreciate that beauty – particularly relevant this spring as we’re allowed to venture a little further after last year’s tight lockdown.
In recent years, we’ve heard more about the Asian cherry festivals, especially from Japan, with their stunning displays of pink blossom. But both wild and cultivated cherries are bringing glory to our countryside and urban streets at the moment – including our native, white-flowered varieties.
Wild cherry is a tree of the Midlands and south though – further north you’ll need to wait a bit longer for the bird cherry, which blooms later, usually in May.
Slightly earlier and a sign of the approaching spring rather than its arrival, is the blackthorn, often found in our hedgerows and scrubland.
It’s one that ‘blows very early in the spring’, as William Cobbett observed two centuries ago, with the blossom appearing before the leaves – along with the eponymous thorns. As blackthorn are the source of sloes later in the year, do clock where they are now if you’re thinking of foraging for your sloe gin in the autumn.
Other fruit trees are also starting to bloom, especially visible in counties famed for their orchards such as Herefordshire and Worcestershire. In these, as in many other places, the ‘wild’ trees you see are likely to be cultivars that have escaped into the wild. Pear blossom is usually the first to appear: white and in clusters as early as March, while in April and May it’s the turn of the apple blossom.
Crab apples are the wild strain but dropped seeds from apples eaten on the move are more likely to be the blossom’s source than the wild relative.
Apple blossom is delicately scented with a slight pink tinge to the mainly white flowers – although a crab apple blossom can be a stronger pink. A crab apple tree is more commonly found as part of a hedgerow or at the edge of old woods with a more gnarled and twisted trunk than an eating apple.
May be, may be not
You might think the May tree, or hawthorn, has a clue in its name as to when it flowers but it’s not necessarily to be relied on for your May Day celebrations. It’s long been known for wild variations in its appearance date according to late winter and spring temperatures.
It was also named for the month well before we switched from the Julian to Gregorian calendars in 1752. So, points out Richard Mabey in Flora Britannica, May Day in effect fell much closer to the middle of the month.
Indeed, in several European countries using may blossom for celebrations is much more associated with Whitsun, at the other end of May. It also has a heavy scent – which, given it can become oppressive indoors, is sometimes blamed for superstitions about taking into the house.
One of the later spring blossoms Is that of the elderflower – and one eagerly awaited by foragers. Loving a rich soil, it’s found in hedges and the edge of woodland but is also often an urban sight, on the edge of open ground and rubbish tips.
The glorious sprays of the tiny star-like elderflower with its distinctive honey perfume will be the sign that spring is truly sprung and summer is around the corner. Time for making elderflower cordial – and toast another blossom season that has run its course.