By Grai St. Clair Rice
Have you ever sat under a tree laden with flowers and humming with bees? It is a mesmerizing and life affirming experience. The fragrance emanating from the blossoms can be intoxicating and the gentle vibration of honeybee wings in concert is a seduction unlike any other.
June is a glorious time for bees in trees in the Hudson Valley. The faithful spring trees that urged life out of the dormancy of winter have faded. Almost by surprise, now, the earth looks lush and full—decked out with immeasurable hues and textures of green, and broad possibilities for flowers.
The flowering trees of June are the most spectacular, and yummy, for nectar sources. This coincides with peak population for honeybee colonies when they are at their most vibrant. With the spring rains feeding the roots and the warm June sun concentrating nectars, honeybees are in heaven when these choice trees are within reach. In order of bloom, after the Black Locust has faded: Tulip Poplar, Catalpa, Linden (Basswood), and stretching into July are Chestnut and Sourwood. All are stellar nectar sources that can fill honey supers with resplendent flavors in a matter of days, if all the elements align.
Although not technically a tree, Sumac is yet another flowering source of yumptiousness, often found along roadsides. The flavors run from floral to citrus to fruity to pungent and spicy. Colors range from water-white to pale yellow to light and dark amber. The fragrance is primarily floral, but when it comes to Chestnuts my mother always says it smells like sex, and in fact it does. The tree has manufactured nectar and exudes aroma as a lure for pollinators to fertilize their flowers by transferring pollen.
Though this may be basic botany, these trees offer honeybees and humans an opportunity for ambrosial attainment and sensory enlightenment. The seduction draws in other pollinators as well, including unexpectedly butterflies on the Chestnut. Beekeepers yearn to have most of these trees within foraging range of their hives, which is on average a two-mile radius. This is where conscious homeowners and landscapers can help by including these magnificent specimens in their overall plan. Adding these trees to the panoply on a property can also offer the timeless pleasure of connecting to the fecundity of the season.
These trees appear to have gone out of the fashion that they once enjoyed. It seems impossible to find Catalpa, also called Indian Bean Tree, at a nursery. This is unfortunate since there is very little as majestic as a mature Catalpa tree, with its wide, arching canopy and large heart-shaped leaves, with luscious clusters of orchid shaped flowers. These trees sport two different nectaries, one down the visible runway deep within the individual blossoms, and a second extra-floral nectary where the heart-shaped leaves meet the stems.
All of these super-duper nectar trees are a bit messy to clean up under after the faded glory has fallen to the ground. Some of the best things in life are messy. What would summer be without ice cream and memories of your first love. June trees, if given room to grow and the proper watering when initially planted, can provide spectacular displays for great joy with very little effort. They can stand out on their own in all their majesty, or create an impressive background for other plantings.
If you don’t have one of these trees, seek to rectify the situation by planting for a future bloom, and find someone else’s tree to sit under. Then, take some time off. String a hammock between two Linden trees, settle in for a warm and breezy mid-June afternoon and you may never want to leave. There is joy watching the work of the honeybees as they seem to frolic across the panicles of Linden blossoms dripping with life. Linger a while…breathe…listen…and imagine the magnificent feeling of a childhood summer when our imaginations are stirred and we hear music in the trees.