Pachysandra terminalis, the thuggish introduced, evergreen groundcover actually has a sweet smelling flower in spring most people don't know about, but then again, they are only a few inches tall.
If you are curious to know what is in bloom around New York City these days here is a quick list of some of the obvious guys. I apologize I do not have many pictures to accompany, as the USB ports on the mothership are still inactive thus cutting off access to my archives and digi-cam. You will find some tree pics below thanks to the few old files I was able to find.
Mertensia virginica (Virginia bluebells)
A North American native to 2' x 2' for part shade in good rich soil, the big 6-8" oval leaves and nodding clusters of purple-blue flowers seem quintessentially spring to many east-coasters. I don't know if they are considered an ephemeral but they fade fast after flower so be sure to plant other late perennials with them.
Dicentra spectabilis (bleeding heart)
I was thrilled to find a bleeding heart in bloom on a woodland slope in Central Park. Usually I do not find them much bigger than a couple feet, but these Asian natives can do really well in a moist soil in sun or part-sun. Along the long arched peduncle (flower stem) form a line of delicate little red and white flowers that actually resemble a small heart bleeding from its base. I imagine Dicentra cucullaria (Dutchman's breeches) and Dicentra formosa (wild bleeding heart), two native forms of Dicentra, are probably also doing their thing right about now.
Vinca minor (creeping myrtle)
Not necessarily my favorite being a Eurasian native evergreen groundcover that can become quick thuggish and invasive, but I have to admit that the delicate purple periwinkle flowers of this plant are having a stellar year. The long strands of small, glossy green leaves only stand a few inches tall, as well as the flowers, but boy can they spread, easily to 10' or more. All I can say is "control, control, control".
Epimedium sp. (barrenwort)
Among a clump of miniature daffodils I found a couple perplexed. Next to the little daffs was a big grouping of a kind of Epimedium, possibly Epimedium x youngianum or Epimedium x perralchicum. I showed how the little flower spikes of tiny, delicate white-yellow flowers were coming from the same plant with the interesting heart-shaped and bronze-edged foliage. The whole plant was only standing about 10" tall, thus my leaning is even more towards Epimedium x youngianum. I recommended to the couple that they become more familiar with Epimedium as I have seen a few great write-ups about them recently. This plant looked great on the woodland slope and I told the couple to come back in the fall and check it's fall color as Epimedium can be excellent edging perennials throughout many seasons.
These clump-forming perennials in the borage family put out a great little blue flower atop their green or green-white foliage to commemorate the arrival of spring much like the bluebells. A great plant for a sunny perennial border with humus-rich soil I see most people walk right by them but I like to crouch down and inspect their fuzzy little clusters of blue-purple flowers.
Tulipa sp. (tulip)
Yup, well, the daffodils (Narcissus) have been doing their thing for a while now and getting their attention so it's about time for the tulips to start showing up on the scene. Tulipa saxatilis is a great short tulip that still delivers a big show, as well as the little cup-shaped species tulips that I love more than any of the uber-cultivated divisions that only last a couple years.
Other minor bulbs like the Scilla, Chionodoxa, and Puschkinia and still out but now on the fade.
Forsythia x intermedia (border forsythia)
Well, winter has certainly passed, and we've quickly forgotten about the softness of witchhazel (Hamamelis) and Cornelian cherry dogwood (Cornus mas) in the face of that bright yellow sensation, forsythia! Not necessarily a top choice of mine but I can't help but smile at how it aids in spring fever among urbanites and tourists alike, quickly taking out their cameras and clicking away with abandon. Yeah, they will get to about 7' wide and 15' tall and all you really need to know is that, like with all your favorite flowers, don't prune until after they do their thing in spring. But then, Hell, cut them back any way you want, you're probably never going to kill it as long as it gets some sun.
Spiraea thunbergii (Thunberg spirea)
In the Conservatory Garden in Central Park there are many hedges of Spiraea thunbergii and they are covered with a sea of tiny white flowers making them a real eye-catcher. In the woodland slope a few are left to their natural habit and look like an explosion of white fireworks among the Corylopsis who's nodding yellow-green flowers are fading. They can stand about 7' x 7' at maturity in full sun and decent soil. I never used to appreciate spirea but they are definitely growing on me, and very easily this time of year.
And finally let's move on to a few trees:
Pyrus calleryana (Callery pear)
Everyone has been wanting to know what the white street trees are that popped all over the city last week. Yeah, they are called Callery pears, an ornamental spring bloomer that does not produce any substantial fruit. From an arborist standpoint they are a nightmare tree with their opposite branching and included bark and tendencies to be structurally unsafe. However, I have been pleased to see newer plantings are specimens that have been raised by proper growers who know how to train them to have more of a spaced branching habit. One woman asked how she could tell a pear from a white-blooming cherry, which is a valid question since they are both members of the rose family and ultimately their small flowers can be similar. Callery pears will have little clusters of white blossoms, much like a miniature bouquet, usually with some foliage emerged behind them. Ornamental cherry trees that are also in bloom right now will often be blooming right on the their dark stems and you will not see any foliage yet, or very little. The second part, and the real trick, is to look at the overall habit and the bark. Where a Callery pear can be more upright like a candelabra and most branches will emerge from one central point on the trunk the cherries are more spiky and spreading and the bak of young trees is smooth and covered with lenticels.
Prunus sp. (ornamental flower cherry)
I am not going to bother getting into species and cultivars and specifics. If it is in bloom now, in the park or in some back yards, with white, pink, or hot pink flowers that individually are only about an 1/2" to 1" wide then I would guess it is probably one of our beloved spring cherry trees. The cherries are what is out now, as I said blooming on stems without foliage, and yes, we are a good few weeks behind DC since we are a zone colder. The trees that are putting out foliage now and then will flower in a couple weeks, those are crabapples (Malus sp.). Look at the bark of cherries and see if you see the branches with smooth bark and horizontal little marks on them. The horizontal growths are called lenticels, and help the tree with respiration and gas exchange, and they can be a quick and easy ID characteristic as you begin to build your botanical vocabulary.
Magnolia x soulangiana (saucer magnolia)
These are the big flowering street trees or park trees that have pink buds opening to big white petals, easily a few inches wide when open. There are a few in Central Park that are a hundred years old or more and their quirky mature forms have a character that make them so unique. Like a big old cherry or crabapple they might have more of a spreading habit. They will grow to 20'-25' tall and wide, classifying them as a great medium-sized tree for the city landscape. When you stand underneath to get a picture of it's gray branches and massive flowers see if you can smell the sweet but almost musky scent of the flowers. Oh, and for you people that think a magnolia and a tulip tree are the same, they are not, especially up here in the northeast. (Remember, you will always be better to default to botanical latin when IDing). A tulip tree is a native that grows straight as an arrow to 75-100' tall in woodlands and blooms a combo of green, orange, and yellow, botanically known as Liriodendron tulipifera, a different beast entirely, trust me!
Magnolia stellata (star magnolia)
Once you figure out what a saucer magnolia is then you will want to know what the other tree is, the one that is all white and has a big flower that is similar but with more petals that are thinner and more spidery. Star magnolias still have a flower that is a good 4-5" wide, but you will see it has a lot more petals to it. With their sweet fragrance and pure white flowers that glow in the landscape the star magnolias have been out for a few weeks now and might be beginning to fade. If you wanted a beautiful medium-sized specimen in your back yard off the porch you would find the smell to be damn near intoxicating, or so I think. Some of the cultivars, like 'Centennial', have a more conical shape, but I think I prefer the straight species which to me seems more fragrant. Hey, either way, a great tree.
So get out there and take a walk already and discover these guys for yourself! And comment or email me with anything else you find out and about this week. Cheers, -aef
(afterthoughts include Brunnera macrophylla, Rhododendron 'P.J.M.', Acer rubrum,etc...)