As April gives way to May, spring has truly sprung with a number of tree species continuing to blossom, writes Dr Terry Mabbett.

AS blackthorn blossom fades away in mid April, the native wild cherry Prunus avium (gean or mazzard) takes over with clusters of white, pendulous flowers. Gean is a substantial tree reaching 25 to 30 m in height, dwarfing the much smaller Prunus cerasus (sour cherry). And it is truly ubiquitous, gracing woods, hedgerows, parks, waste ground and railway embankments.


Loveliest of trees, the cherry now

Is hung with bloom along the bough,

And stands about the woodland ride

Wearing white for Eastertide


From: Loveliest of Trees A.E. Housman (1859–1936)

Forestry Journal: Wild crab apple looks absolutely amazing in full bloom but the pale pink petals on this tree may indicate some genetic adulteration with domestic apple.Wild crab apple looks absolutely amazing in full bloom but the pale pink petals on this tree may indicate some genetic adulteration with domestic apple.
By coming into flower as spring temperatures rise, wild cherry trees are transformed from bare branches into white blossom-clad boughs in hours. Indeed, the sheer speed of wild cherry blossoming is seen from a Chiltern Railways line train between St Marylebone Station in Central London to Sudbury Hill, Harrow on a warm sunny day in the second week of April. From the early morning train, wild cherry trees crowding the embankments along the way look like they do in winter, but on the way back at tea time they say it really is springtime. One of the most endearing sights in April is an English bluebell wood with old, peeling gean trees.


April sees the wild cherry tree burst forth with snow-white flowers.

The woodland floor is sea of blue and blossoming boughs billow

like white fluffy clouds in a bluebell sky and the world turns upside down.


In the midst of this wild cherry (gean) blossom are flowers of another Prunus – and a cherry no less – staking a claim in south-of-England woodlands. This is bird cherry (Prunus padus), a native of Scotland and northern England but planted as an amenity tree in parks and along suburban streets in the South. From here it has escaped to become naturalised in woodlands and hedgerows, the small and succulent ripe black fruits having being eaten by wild birds which disperse the seed.

Though commonly called bird cherry it can be difficult to equate with wild cherry (gean) because the small white flowers and tiny black fruit are borne on upright racemes rather than in drooping clusters. From both leaf shape and floral formula it is clearly a Prunus species. However, bird cherry is more closely related to the evergreen cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus), an exotic and invasive evergreen shrub or small tree, originally from the Mediterranean region.

Forestry Journal: Gean or wild cherry (Prunus avium) in full bloom, typically during mid April in southern England.Gean or wild cherry (Prunus avium) in full bloom, typically during mid April in southern England.

The final flowering flutter for April is crab apple, with pink and white flowers during the last week of the month, virtually the only common native tree with some real colour in the petals. The wild apple trees spread throughout our woodlands are a taxonomist’s nightmare, comprising garden escapes and hybrids with cultivated apple and introduced species of crab apple. But, deep in the wood, authentic native wild crab apple trees (Malus sylvestris) do survive.

European botanists are much stricter in their definition of true wild crab apple trees, claiming the petals must be pure white, with even a hint of pink in the blossom proving some parentage of domestic apple trees. If you fancy a branch or two of the blossom indoors and receive an unexpected sting while breaking the stems, then you have found the real thing, which has thorny stems.

That aside, wild apple blossom is a valuable addition to spring whatever the origin, although many are traditionally cut down in the hedgerow along with other natives, including hazel, hawthorn and field maple, thus failing to attain their natural climax status as small trees. Like Prunus species, Malus sylvestris bears flowers with the classic rose family (Rosaceae) formation and structure – actinomorphic (a symmetrical shape) with five sepals and five petals and a general floral formula which reads: K 5. C 5. A ∞. G 1 to ∞.

Away from the wayside and woodland, many introduced and custom-bred crab apples complement springtime in parks and gardens. Seasonal combinations of spring blossom and decorative autumn fruit are the main features of ornamental crab apple trees. Japanese crab apple (Malus floribunda) offers the best of both with profuse pink blossom in spring and yellow fruits flushed with red in autumn. Purple-leaved crabs like Malus x lemoinei, with purple/crimson flowers and purple leaves, take some beating for an attractive display.

Forestry Journal: Hawthorn is unrivalled in mass and intensity of white blossom borne along the branches.Hawthorn is unrivalled in mass and intensity of white blossom borne along the branches.


As May takes over from April, many trees are uniformly green. At this time a trio of ubiquitous white-flowered native trees plot the last spurt of spring in to summer. Hawthorn, rowan and elder, flowering in that order, can’t provide the stark early spring contrast of white blossom on dark wood against azure skies because most trees and shrubs are now in full leaf, but the sheer size of flower clusters and unique scent of the flowers more than make amends.

Early May, with hawthorn coming into bloom, means spring has well and truly sprung. Days are warmer, the air steamier and you can almost see things grow. For sheer density and intensity of flowers, hawthorn blossom cannot be beaten, whether along the woodland edge, in the hedgerow or on the railway embankment. Branches visibly droop under a mass of white and sometimes pink-tinged flowers, but the physical weight of the blossom is not the only thing about hawthorn which is heavy. Hawthorn blossom emits the most organic of smells, definitely an acquired taste, like ripe French cheese.

Some people have likened the scent of hawthorn flowers to stale almonds, but whatever the aromatic shortcomings, hawthorn attracts the insects it requires for pollination. These are masses of small dung flies, clearly at home with the overpowering foetid aroma and visual stimulation from the brown anthers on the stamens. 

Since records began, May blossom has always been the classic call of spring and is still used to crown the Queen of May. However, this caused some consternation amongst naturalists and historians who were unable to square today’s traditional May Day (1 May) with the sure-fire appearance of hawthorn flowers which, during a late spring, may not open until mid May. However, they clearly forgot that until 1752 May Day celebrations took place on 12 May, after which May Day was brought forward to 1 May where it has remained.

Flowering at the same time as hawthorn but not in such abundance is the mountain ash or rowan tree (Sorbus aucuparia). Rowan is a hardy, resilient tree indifferent to soil quality, with the alternative common name of mountain ash confirming a head for heights and steely resolve in harsh growing conditions. Mountain ash (rowan) occurs naturally at the higher, more exposed and less fertile elevations up to 2,500 feet above sea level, and in conditions that would deter and thwart almost all other hardwood tree species in Britain.

Forestry Journal: Deep in the woodland it is still possible to find the pure white flowers of an authentically wild crab apple tree.Deep in the woodland it is still possible to find the pure white flowers of an authentically wild crab apple tree.

Though widely planted as a woodland tree, rowan is not native to southern England’s lowlands but in deep rich and fertile soils with room to move rowan trees will grow up to 50 feet tall, as they now regularly do in South Hertfordshire woodlands, the large clusters of white flowers complementing swathes of bluebells blooming below at the same time.

Leaves of the mountain ash look like those of common ash and the flower heads resemble umbels, but close examination shows the individual creamy-white and strong-smelling flowers are like tiny hawthorn blossoms appearing in dense clusters called cymes. Like native hawthorn, native rowan is a member of the plant family Rosaceae. The scent of rowan flowers resembles that of hawthorn blossom but is nowhere near as overpowering. Like hawthorn, rowan is well established and respected in folklore as a friendly flowering tree with the ability to ward off the evil eye.

Hawthorn’s blossom burns and browns in the late-May sun as the merry month slips into flaming June. The heavy organic smells that hovered over the hedgerow are now replaced by a lighter, more delicate and winy bouquet. This is diffusing from the large white and drooping flower heads on the common elder tree or shrub Sambucus nigra, each of the broad flower heads comprising several hundred tiny flowers. Their sweet, winey aroma mingles with subtle scents from the white umbels of cow parsley and other flowers in the grassy verge below. In the following days and weeks there will be a further succession of native trees bearing white flowers including wild service tree and dogwood, but spring is done and summer has come.


The nightingale at the end of May

Lingers each year for their display

Till when he sees their blossoms blown

He knows the spring is flown


From: The Windmill by Robert Bridges (1844–1930)

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