Home & Garden Columns

Green Neighbors: Welcome the Flowers That Bloom in the Spring

By Ron Sullivan
Tuesday April 24, 2007

Having ranted about the allergenic pollen from certain flowering trees—the sorts one might not even think of as “flowering” except in the taxonomic sense—allow me to spend a few inches on thanks and praise for their more conspicuous brethren. 

From January onward, we’re blessed by flowering trees on our streets and in our public and visible places. The first flowering plum I used to notice was one that stood behind the recycling center, now closed, at Dwight and Martin Luther King. I don’t know whether it was genetics or its situation—reflected light and heat from buildings or some such thing—but it always shone like a beacon to reassure me that winter really wouldn’t last forever this year either. 

I missed a lot of the plum blossom show this year, including the one in our own backyard, as I was in Florida having the opposite of fun. But despite the gloomy weather I came back to, the street trees were offering a welcome that looked good even after time in the semitropics, where something’s always blooming prolifically.  

We do pretty much have the best of several climatic worlds here, with flowering plums and peaches and quinces from northern places, crape myrtle and dogwood and magnolias from our own Southeast, tibouchinas and jacarandas from the semitropics, bottlebrush trees and paperbarks and New Zealand Christmas trees (those are the ones that look very like Hawai’ian ’ohia lehua) from over the South Pacific, pears and rhododendrons from Asia, and our own California native—if thus far underused—species of dogwood and cherry and ironwood.  

Big showy flowers evolved in plants—to risk a teleological metaphor—to attract pollinators more efficient, or at least more directed, than the wind. This isn’t to say that trees with big flowers are “more evolved”—less basal, as taxonomists say it, and more remotely related to ancestral forms—than birches and mulberries and oaks and such, the small-green-flowered kinds. In fact, magnolias seem (as of the last big analysis I’ve seen) to be among the oldest families of trees, and you’re hard put to find a more conspicuous flower.  

In fact, some of those magnolias flower not only before they leaf out, but before winter’s half over. Some of those are from Asia, and their distribution—southern North America, mid-Asia, and not a lot in between—speaks of an old, old line that has stood its ground while the ground was moving and changing climatically beneath it.  

One could argue, if one were to stay in that teleological groove, that fruit trees evolved not only to manipulate insects, birds, bats and such to move their genetic material around, but to further manipulate birds and mammals and fruit-eaters in general into moving their seeds around after they’d formed. (One would have to further stretch meaning to do that; as Joe pointed out similarly last week, one can’t strictly be said to manipulate if one lacks hands.)  

Strolling further along that line of thought, flowering plants of great beauty and adaptibility have managed to enlist humans to distribute their descendants all over the world. Look where those trees have come from; there’s not much chance they could’ve sent even so sturdy a seedcarrier as the coco de mer so far as northern California, never mind so far inland as even San Pablo Avenue.  

And consider trees like Franklinia alatamaha, whose survival is strictly a matter of ex situ conservation: The species, like the less showy but symbolic ginkgo, is long gone except where we’ve planted it. In neither case do we know, precisely, what caused the extinction, so we can’t blame ourselves for it. 

The spent petals of that metaphor are drifting around my head, and the plums and quite a few others have been stripped of flowers by time, wind, and rain over the past few weeks. But the flaxleaf paperbarks are starting to bloom, and the red horsechestnuts are balancing those gorgeous candles on their branches, and here come black locust blooms too. (As red horsechestnut has a white-flowered form, black locusts come in pink and white—the “black” refers to someone’s perception of their bark color.)  

Beauty as perceived by humans is adaptive for plants. Never mind all that; I’m grateful for it and rejoice in it as it softens the utilitarian edges of our cities. The trees seem to think we’re worthy of such pleasure, even if sometimes our fellow humans don’t.  



Photograph by Ron Sullivan 

Flowers on an Eastern dogwood in a North Berkeley garden.