Showing Off the Woodies

Shrubs and trees often have beautiful flowers. Their woody stems give them a certain rigid architectural quality that can serve as a framework for herbaceous, stemmed flowers in an vase.

Hamamelis virginiana
Hamamelis virginiana

Shrubs begin flowering before leaf out in the spring. Your spring may begin with spicebush (Lindera benzoin), the so-called “forsythia of the woods,” and end with witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), a shrub with flowers that persist after the leaves falls. Between April and November there is a continuous string of flowering woody plants.

The tiny yellow flowers of spicebush have a striking form; they float in the understory of the forest in flat sprays with a single shrub supporting blossoms at many levels. This horizontal arrangement is in marked contrast to the actual forsythia, a so-called “cane shrub.” Its form consists of wands thrown up vertically until they droop under their own weight.

Spicebush is a laurel and that family is noted for its brilliant floral displays. The mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) is not actually a laurel; it is a member of the heath family (Ericaceae). Ericads like azaleas, rhododendrons, and the mountain laurel are all well know as cultivars, but there are dozens of wild species that may be available from nurseries if you live in an area where landscaping with native plants has caught on.


In the Northeast wild varieties include the flame azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum), rhodora (Rhododendron canadense), the pinxter flower (Rhododendron nudiflorum), and the great laurel (Rhododendron maximum). The first three are all small deciduous shrubs, but the last is an evergreen that can reach a height of 35 feet.

During the so-called Hypsithermal, or Holocene climate optimum, between 9,000 and 5,000 years before present, many plant and animal species spread northward as part of the recovery from the last Ice Age. The climate has been generally cooler since and many species retreated southward, but left behind “relict” populations in isolated northern areas where the climate was suitable for survival. One example of this is the scattered groves of great laurel that can be found through Connecticut, Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire. Rhododendron State Park in New Hampshire preserves the northernmost known site. The 16-acre grove blooms in mid-July.

Cercis canadensis

In addition to shrubs, some small understory trees have striking blossoms. The redbud (Cercis canadensis) is found in the wild north to the Southern Tier of New York, but it (or its Chinese cousin) have been planted extensively as ornamentals and it tends to spread rapidly where introduced. Some of the flowers erupt directly from the wood on fairly old branches, which makes the tree quite a sight when it blooms in May, bright fuchsia flowers against nearly black bark. The flowers are most profuse on the newer growth, where they are arrayed in drooping masses.

When the redbud is fading the lilacs (Syringa vulgaris) begin to take off. Although native to Europe and Asia, lilacs have been popular “foundation shrubs” in the United States since the late 18th century. One can often find them seemingly growing in the wild where a farmstead has burnt down or been abandoned years before and only the plantings and a few stone walls are left. The aroma of lilacs is quite strong and some may find it overbearing in a confined space. The most common colors are shades of purple, but pinks and whites are common as well.

Viburnum plicatum
Viburnum plicatum

As the summer progresses the viburnums become prominent. This is a large family and both introduced ornamentals and native species are widely planted. The nannyberry (Viburnum lentago) is a showy native, while Viburnum plicatum is a commonly seen and interesting ornamental from eastern Asia. V. plicatum has corymbs of small white flowers surrounded by larger, showier sterile flowers.

Even larger trees can have showy blossoms worth collecting and putting on display in a vase. Horsechestnuts and buckeyes (Aesculus spp.) have large spikes of white or pink flowers. Tulip or yellow poplars (Liriodendron tulipifera) have subtler yellow and orange cups that do, in fact, resemble tulips. Fruit trees, especially those in the rose family, such as apples, cherries, and peaches, have gorgeous white to pink flowers. The cherry displays of Washington, D.C. and urban Japan are revered and celebrated.

The traditional way to increase the surface area for the absorption of water once a woody plant is cut is to crush the base of the stems above the cut. A florist has recently informed me that this is not actually necessary, but it does work.


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