Here’s what’s blooming in town this week to make your walks more enjoyable
Migratory Bird Day is this Saturday, May 13, in the United States and Canada. While many birds stick around for the winter, others are arriving from warmer climates, or are passing through on their way north. On Tuesday a colorful new avian visitor, which I had never seen at my feeder before, arrived – the state bird of Maryland, the Baltimore oriole (Icterus galbula), with its bright orange and black plumage. I am hoping it will nest in the neighborhood. A few years ago, one nested at Saugus Ironworks and was an additional popular attraction for those visiting the historic site.
Mother’s Day is this Sunday, May 14, and the garden centers are full of flowers. Many gardens are at their peak of bloom at this time of year, with some daffodil and tulip varieties still in full swing, and many trees and shrubs coming into flower now, too. Right on schedule, old favorites like lilacs (Syringa vulgaris), flowering dogwoods (Benthamidia florida, formerly Cornus florida) and crabapples (Malus spp.) are coloring the landscape in pinks, whites and purple tones. In part because of the bloom time, many of these plants are popular Mother’s Day gifts, and they can be a reminder of the occasion for many decades to come.
Since 1908, the peak bloom of lilacs is celebrated on Lilac Sunday at the Arnold Arboretum’s famous lilac collection. As it often coincides with Mother’s Day, it has been a traditional outing for several generations of families in the Boston area. There are over 400 lilac shrubs there, but a stroll through any town in New England at this time of year is likely to be scented by these popular shrubs for a few weeks in mid-May. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was traditional to plant lilacs at the corners of a new house, but they are also often planted in other areas of the garden. Lilacs need full sun to bloom well, but do not demand a lot of care. Old-fashioned varieties are still the most popular, although new introductions can extend the lilac blooming season beyond May, and low growing varieties can help a lilac fit in a tighter space than the familiar forms.
Tulips are still in bloom all around town although some varieties have faded now or have been devoured by hungry rabbits. Hopeful gardeners still plant tulip bulbs in the fall, hoping for a dramatic and colorful display, and sometimes they are rewarded with some fantastic flowers.
A long cool spring like we have had up until this point has given some spring perennials like rock phlox (Phlox subulata) a chance to bloom for over a month. Because of its ability to bloom in shallow soils and rock gardens, it is a good fit for New England’s rocky soil. It can adapt to areas from bright sun to partial shade, so there is a place in almost every garden that would be appropriate for it. Luckily rabbits do not seem especially fond of it and tend to leave it alone.
One of the most beautiful displays of phlox this spring can be found in front of the Winter Street home of Shirley Diotte, where a lawn of rock phlox and violets rather than grass carpet the steep slope. Shirley’s late husband, Saugus Policeman Bill Diotte, planted the phlox to solve a landscape challenge since mowing or weeding on this steep area would be a difficult weekly task. When not in bloom, it resembles very short grass. Once established, rock phlox helps keep out many weeds. Shirley says that the white violets came in on their own and are a beautiful complement to the pale violet phlox.
Editor’s Note: Laura Eisener is a landscape design consultant who helps homeowners with landscape design, plant selection and placement of trees and shrubs, as well as perennials. She is a member of the Saugus Garden Club and offered to write a series of articles about “what’s blooming in town” shortly after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. She was inspired after seeing so many people taking up walking.