Bay Journal

Early spring blossoms add color, wildlife to landscapes

  • By Kathy Reshetiloff on March 31, 2014
The seeds of the eastern redbud are eaten by a variety of wildlife. (Britt Slattery / USF&WS) The seeds of the eastern redbud are eaten by a variety of wildlife. (Britt Slattery / USF&WS) The shadbush, below, blooms when shad return to their spawning grounds in the spring, thus, its name.  (Britt Slattery / USF&WS)

Although it seemed as if this stubborn winter would never lose its hold on us, spring has finally arrived. Nothing is more gratifying than to see the glimpses of color finally splashed on the landscape.

Even before any leaves have emerged, flowers have finally burst forth. Two early spring flowering trees usually catch my eye: the shadbush (Amelanchier spp.) and eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis).

Look in the understory of woodlands around April and you may see the creamy white blossoms of the shadbush tree, making them quite conspicuous against the background of a still gray forest.

There are about a dozen Amelanchier species native to the United States. They range from low, spreading shrubs to tall trees. Blooming in late spring or early summer, these flowering shrubs and trees provide a site for early pollinating insects. The insects, in turn, attract resident birds tired of their winter diet of seeds and provide fuel for our spring migratory songbirds.

In the East, common names for these species are shadbush or shadblow because they flower around the same time that American shad are returning to their springtime spawning grounds. The term “blow” means blossom.

Another common name, serviceberry, may have originated from a colonial times. After the spring thaw, clergy would visit outlying areas to provide services to those who had died that winter. This coincided with the blooming of the serviceberry

The word Amelanchier is an ancient Celtic word for apple. The sweet, reddish-purple shadbush fruit were eaten by the American Indians and are an important food for songbirds, squirrels, bears and other woodland wildlife.

Besides being an excellent source of food for wildlife, the shadbush is a great tree for one’s yard. In addition to the early white blossoms and dark fruits, serviceberries have brilliant fall colors of yellow and orange that deepen to red.

My favorite early spring tree is the eastern redbud. Apparently I’m in good company as the redbud came in second place when it came to choosing the United States’ national tree. Flowers of the redbud paint the landscape with shades of pink to reddish purple from March through May. Eastern redbuds are found throughout the lower Great Plains and Eastern United States.

American Indians used this tree to treat many ailments. They boiled the bark to make tea to treat whooping cough. They used astringent made from the bark to treat dysentery. The roots and inner bark were used for fevers, congestion and vomiting.

Like the shadbush, these early blooms provide nectar for bees and other pollinating insects which, in turn, are food for resident and migratory birds. Ruby-throated hummingbirds are also attracted to the nectar of this early bloomer.

A member of the pea family, eastern redbuds produce clusters of flat green pods that change to brown when mature. Each pod contains four to 10 small, hard, black or brown seeds. Bobwhite quail and songbirds eat the seeds. Squirrels occasionally eat the buds, bark and seed. Whitetail deer browse the foliage and twigs during the spring and summer.

Typically found in the woodland understory, the eastern redbud is also a lovely tree for a yard, with an average height and spread of 20–35 feet. After the blooms are done, heart-shaped leaves appear on arching branches that form a spreading graceful crown. The leaves turn golden yellow in fall.

Shadbush trees and eastern redbuds are just two types of native trees found in many local nurseries. Native trees, shrubs, groundcover, grasses and flowers are a great addition to any landscape. Plus the leaves, flowers, seeds, berries and other fruits of these plants provide food and shelter for a variety of birds, beneficial insects, small mammals and other wildlife.

Because native plants are adapted to local climate conditions, they generally require less watering and fertilizing and are often more resistant to insects and disease as well. All this adds up to attractive landscapes wildlife-friendly landscapes with less work, water and chemicals!

For information, visit www.nativeplantcenter.net to search for native plants that meet your needs. Download a copy of “Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping: Chesapeake Bay Watershed” from www.nps.gov/plants/pubs/chesapeake.

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About Kathy Reshetiloff

Kathryn Reshetiloff is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office in Annapolis.

Read more articles by Kathy Reshetiloff

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