By Ellen Barcel
Each spring we see trees covered with beautiful white and pink flowers. Many times we decide we want one or more in our own gardens. But, first we need to identify the specific tree. Recognizing which is which can be relatively easy. For example, the Kwanzan cherry tree has beautiful double pink flowers. The small to medium sized trees, at maturity, tend to be wider than tall and for all practical purposes are sterile. You won’t get a crop of cherries from these but they are stunning.
Another common flowering tree is the dogwood. There are a number of varieties but the flowers — single, white or pink — have four petals on each flower. The ends of the petals usually have a notch at the end. Technically, they’re not petals but bracts, a variety of leaf. The flower is the very central part and is followed later in the season by berries.
Sometimes you can identify a tree by ruling out what it isn’t. Pear tree flowers are white, so if you have pink flowers, it’s probably not a pear tree. Most apple trees have pink buds but the buds open to white flowers.
Frequently each spring we see a number of pink flowers that are not so easy to identify. If you’ve fallen in love with the tree, you need to identify it in order to acquire one or more of your own. Many years ago a pink-flowering tree seeded itself in my backyard. For many years it bore beautiful flowers but never any fruit. I never did identify it, assuming that it was some sort of fruit tree. It lived out its life there until one spring its flowers and leaves never sprouted. It went as quietly as it had come. I was really disappointed when I had to cut it down.
More recently two flowering trees sprung up in my front yard. Each spring they are covered in beautiful pink flowers. They bear fruit, so I know the answer — they are peach trees. Unfortunately, the peaches are small, green and bitter, but the trees are beautiful so I keep them for their flowers and shade.
But, what if you see a pink-flowering tree with no fruit — it could be harder to figure out what it is. There are a number of ways to attack this problem. Start by taking one or more pictures of the flowers, leaves and bark. The flowers disappear quickly and are frequently one of the easiest ways of identifying the plant. With pictures you have a reference. If the gardener is around, ask him or her or ask an arborist or an extension educator.
To identify the tree by yourself:
◆ Look at the flowers — their general description, shape and how many petals they have.
◆ Check out the leaves. Their color (green or burgundy) will be a clue as well as their shape and size. Many crab apples, for example, have burgundy leaves as do some plums.
◆ The bark of various trees can be quite different so don’t forget to check it out.
◆ If possible, go back to the tree after the flowers have fallen and the fruit appears.
◆ When does the tree bloom? The garden variety of dogwood, Cornus florida, even the pink-flowering ones, tend to bloom a good month earlier than the Kousa dogwood.
◆ How big is the overall mature height of the tree and what is its shape?
Now, with your photos in hand, check out the various characteristics against descriptions and pictures either online or in a guide to trees. I use the “National Audubon Society Field Guide to Trees, Eastern Region.” It is a great source to identify trees in general, since it has full color photos of flowers, leaves, fruit/nuts, bark, etc. If going online, enter as much information you have into the search engine as possible.
You’ll notice that fruit trees (apple, crabapple, peach, etc.) tend to have flowers with five petals while dogwood has only four. Check the center of the flower. What color is it? The shape of the petal is helpful. Are they long and thin or more rounded? Cherry blossoms tend to have a small split at the end of each petal while plum petals do not. The leaves of cherry trees tend to be flat while those of plums are curled lengthwise. The bark is a great indicator also. Cherry trees tend to have bark that has horizontal markings while plum trees do not. Good luck in identifying your mystery plant!
Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. Send your gardening questions to [email protected] To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.