This week the air in my neighborhood smells so sweet. The black locust trees are in bloom.
Black locusts (Robinia pseudoacacia) are common in Pittsburgh because they’re one of the first trees to grow in poor, disturbed soil. Our area has a lot of habitat for them, generated by people and nature — bulldozers and landslides.
Black locusts are ugly in winter with gnarly bark and twisted branches but they are sweet in May. The trees are in the pea family and it is evident in their flowers. Here’s what they look like in bloom.
The flowers are attractive to bees and birds. I’ve seen rose-breasted grosbeaks use their large beaks to grab the base of the flowers, then twirl to make the petals fall off. They swallow the nectar end.
Black locusts usually reach their peak on May 12 but they’re late this year. Look for these beautifully scented trees before the flowers fade in about 10 days.
Every year I see these yellow catkins in March and every year I forget their name. But this year will be different. I’m identifying them ahead of time as American hazelnuts (Corylus americana).
The catkins are the male flowers, so full of pollen that your fingers become dusty yellow if you touch them. They swing and flutter in the breeze to disperse their pollen to …
… to fertilize this tiny flower. The red female flowers, located on the branches, are easy to overlook because they’re so small. They don’t stand out because they don’t need to attract insects for pollination.
Here are some additional tips on identifying American hazelnut:
This nut-bearing plant is often cultivated. It produces more nuts in full sun but it grows in the shade as well.
American hazelnut trunks grow in clumps like a shrub.
The clumps are on average about 10 feet tall.
Its long yellow catkins indicate it’s in the birch family.
The bark is smooth and speckled.
Many of the catkins sprout alone instead of in bunches.
The catkins are as long — or longer — than my fingers.
The leaf buds are alternate on the branches.
The female flowers bloom from the leaf buds before the leaves appear.
Because it’s often cultivated, you’ll find American hazelnut along trails and in easy to reach places. Its nuts provide food for wildlife.
(photos credits: top photo by Kate St. John, closeups by Marcy Cunkelman)
Even though March came in like a lion, the trees remember that it felt like summer last month so they’re waking up for spring.
American elms (Ulmus americana) are one of the first trees to bloom and have already begun in my city neighborhood. Right now it’s easy to recognize young elms from afar because their twig arrangement resembles a fish skeleton dotted with reddish flower buds. The skeleton isn’t perfect though. The “ribs” (twigs) alternate up the branch.
The trees with opposite twigs and fat red buds are red maples. They’re blooming, too.
On the last day of February at Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, the top bud on this pignut hickory was pushing out tiny leaves. This is so premature that it reminds me of the early leaf out we had in March 2012.
And though the sycamores looked dormant next to Raccoon Creek …
… their seed balls are ready to disintegrate in the wind.
Will this weekend’s cold weather delay the trees? I hope so!