Three Nice Native Understory Trees in Bloom Now – and One Thug!

Submitted 2 years ago
Created by
Henry Homeyer

Mountain Maple, Pagoda Dogwood and Striped Maple are great

It is easy to focus our attention on pretty imported woody plants like roses and magnolias. But native trees and shrubs, though perhaps a little less dramatic, offer a lot: they are hardy here, they are not generally bothered by insects and diseases, and they offer benefits to our native wildlife and pollinators. Now is the time, while these three are blooming, to meet them and think about planting them. 

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I never paid attention to Mountain Maple (Acer spicatum) until recently when I saw some in full bloom. Their greenish-yellow flowers stand up vertically above their branches in in small narrow clusters, technically called racemes. The leaves are small for maples, just 2 to 3 inches wide, and generally have only 3 lobes (most other maples have 5 lobes). It grows at the edge of roads and forests and stays small –usually 10 feet tall or so. Its seeds are typical maple samaras, the 2-winged helicopters children love.

Mountain maple

Pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) is one of our native dogwoods here in New Hampshire and Vermont. Its flowers are much less dramatic than the showy dogwoods of Boston and points south (C. florida). The blossoms of ours are a pale white that appear in clusters; in mid-August they will have dark blue berries on bright red stems. The fruit is beloved by birds. Although all the other dogwoods have branches opposite each other on stems, this one has alternate branching. It is small, 10 feet at best, and often nearly as wide. It grows in semi-shady places, and does not need rich soil.

Pagoda dogwood

Pagoda dogwood berries in August

Striped or Moose maple (Acer pennsylvanicum) is best enjoyed in winter when its bark is brightly striped with green and black. But in summer it sports huge maple leaves (5 to 8 inches across) and now, in early June, it offers delicate yellow flower strands (racemes) hanging down below the branches though the smaller trees do not blossom. It is an understory tree, rarely over 25 feet tall and often growing in open forest where it gets dappled sunshine.

Delicate flowers of striped or moose maple

Acer pennsylvanicum bark is brightest in winter

Another common understory shrub is bush or Amur honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii). This is blooming now, too. Flowers are white, fading to yellow and will produce red berries in the fall. It is a real pest, showing up anywhere birds drop the seeds. If you have it, at least cut it down. I find the root system is not as tenacious as some thugs, and have had luck pulling out smaller specimens. This plant leafs out earlier than our native plants, and keeps leaves on later in the fall – which help it to outcompete our native species.

Bush honeysuckle can take over the understory if left to run wild

Our birds, pollinators and mammals evolved with our native trees and shrubs, and they need them for food, nesting material, hiding places. So think about planting a few shrubs or small trees at the edge of your woods. When they bloom, they will certainly bring a smile to your lips.


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