Northland Nature: Elderberry trees green first

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him via Katie Rohman at

The opening of new compound leaves and flower buds on a red-berry elder in early May. The flower buds are in the center and after the leaves open, the tree has white flowers late in the month. (Photo by Larry Weber)

The month of May shows many natural happenings in the Northland. During these weeks, we’ll see an expanded influx of migrating songbirds. The sparrows, woodpeckers and the earliest of the warblers that are present before April ends are just the start.

Now, in this new month, we’ll see swallows, wrens, orioles, grosbeaks, vireos, hummingbirds and a huge variety of warblers. With lakes open, the resident loons have moved in. Many earlier arrivals have gone on to the next phase and bird nests are being constructed.

Among mammals, the early litters of squirrels, rabbits and mice are present in yards and parks. The frogs that called much during the latter days of April will be joined by other species in May and the toads seen last year in our yards and gardens take their annual trip to water to court and lay eggs.

We’ve seen a few butterflies so far this season, but now in May, they will diversify and become easier to see. Other insects such as bees, flies and dragonflies are also now active. And later in the month, we note the presence of mosquitoes and black flies.

Along with all this happening with the local animal wildlife, May is also the month of flowers. The forest floor becomes crowded and colorful as we move through these coming weeks.


Spring wildflowers that survived the winter underground now emerge as green leaves and soon will flower in the sunlight that penetrates through the forest canopy above. Hepatica, bloodroot, spring beauty, trout-lily, violet and bellwort, just to name a few, will soon be showing a vernal bouquet that is sure to catch our eyes.

But these wild flowers are often called ephemerals ("short-lived") and are quick to fade in the shade of the leafy woods. May is also the greening month.

In our yards, we’ve been seeing the grass and garden plants greening. In the woods, this color change starts low with the mosses that were present under the snow all winter. Soon among them are the new leaves of wild leek (ramps), trout-lilies and spring beauty, preparing to flower.

Going higher, the woody plants forming new green leaves are small. Bushes of gooseberry, raspberry and honeysuckle open new leaf buds to grab the needed sunlight. The first trees to green are also small. Setting the pace for the greening woods is the shrubby tree: elderberry.

Also known as red-berry elder, these small trees are common at the edge of the woods and reach only about 15 feet tall. (A close cousin, the American elderberry — more common to the south — has dark berries.)

Being a shrubby tree among the taller ones can mean that it will often not be noticed. Now, the huge leaf buds open before the other trees and we see their large compound leaves unfold.

Once these leaves with five to seven leaflets open, they are quickly followed by a cluster of white flowers that bloom later in the month. It is common to see the leaf and flower buds opening together on these trees in early May.

Once the elderberry has shown its leaves to the new warming season, it is as though others were waiting for one to start the greening, and they are quick to follow. Cherry, hazel, willow, alder and lilac are soon to follow. Quaking aspen are the first taller tree to form a new green canopy.


By the end of this greening month, the forests will be full of green trees, but it begins early with the small elderberry.

Larry Weber
Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books.
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