Published July 22, 2010, 05:46 PM

Northland Nature: Basswood flowers are always a treat around here

This July, basswood flowers opened early, but many of the trees that I’ve been watching are also loaded with these tiny blossoms, especially those in the sunlight.

May is the month when we expect to see trees in flower. During the latter half of this spring time, we can see a half dozen kinds blooming along the roadsides or woods edge.

Wild plum, Juneberry, pin cherry, choke cherry, elderberry and crab apple all add white to the greening scene.

And this is when we see just how common these small trees are.

As we move into June, we add dogwood, highbush cranberry and mountain maple to that list while the domestic lilacs produce a color and fragrance of their own.

The show is great and we all take notice, as do the bees. Many of these arboreal bouquets are buzzing with pollinating business at this time.

The scene changes when leaves grow out, and quickly the vernal blossoms are a memory.

Indeed, many of these same trees are now bearing products of their spring flowers and pollination.

By late July, Juneberries, pin cherries, and elderberries all have had ripe berries and fruits, and others are right behind.

We don’t expect to see any more flowering from the woody plants, but it happens — and is a very large one at that.

Unlike others in the woods, basswoods wait until July to open their clusters of yellow-green blossoms.

Along with red maple, sugar maple and red oak, basswoods are one of the largest of deciduous trees in the northland.

Most of us recognize this tree by its big heart-shaped leaves; at 6 to 8 inches long, they are probably the largest leaves of any in the forests.

Basswoods also have a unique growth pattern whereby they often have many new branches coming off a root and form a multiple of “small trees” surrounding a large one.

Such an appearance allows for recognition of the tree even in the winter.

With such a thick growth and large leaves, it is easy for us to not see flowers even when they are in full bloom, as they are now in July.

Anyone stopping at a basswood is likely to hear the sound of buzzing.

Bees find the blossoms even if we do not and they scatter throughout the fragrant florets, often towards the tree top.

Basswood flowers are a favorite for honey bees gathering nectar; they use it to produce much of the sweet-tasting substance.

Upon hearing these insects, we might look up to notice the clusters of rather small flowers.

These groupings contain about five to 15 tiny yellowish florets.

Each is only about a half-inch across with five thin, pale yellow petals.

The whole cluster opens up towards the ground.

Blooms may be small, but they are numerous all over the large tree, and provide for much bee food in July.

With the warmth of this month, July is when bees are most active.

Once pollinated, the seeds develop through late summer and into autumn and mature as spherical woody growths.

These pea-sized seeds hang from a leaf-like bract that serves as a wing when the ripe seeds are dispersed in the wind. They look and fall somewhat like a hang glider. Turning brown, the seeds remain all winter.

Last year was a remarkable one for basswood flowers and seeds, and I watched many trees keep a thick seed cover all winter; the trees often appeared to have a coating of cold-weather leaves.

This July, the flowers opened early, but many of the trees that I’ve been watching are also loaded with these tiny blossoms, especially those in the sunlight.

It looks like this is another good basswood year.


Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books that are available now: “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Fascinating Fungi of the North Woods.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

Tags: