Saturday, March 28, 2020

The case of the mysterious blossoms

On a blue-sky afternoon last week I hopped into the car. Twenty-six minutes later  - thanks to the new normal of light traffic in New York - I had rounded New York Harbor, passed under the beautiful Verrazano Narrows Bridge, waved at Coney Island, turned east towards the sandy barrier islands on the city's Atlantic edge, and parked.

A few empty car spaces from me a tattoo-ed girl also parked, and let out her pitbull for  a walk. We smiled the shy COVID-smile, gave each other a wide berth, and headed down different backroads of the dunes at Fort Tilden.

Fort Tilden is a national park, but ragged at the edges due to chronic federal underfunding. It is also a decommissioned missile site, a relic of a cold war, and now suitably post-apocalyptic and nature-shrouded.

I have visited in many seasons but more often since having a car. It's reachable by subway and bus (and bicycle), but it is a long trip, and right now no one takes public transport voluntarily. A spring walk and picnic had been planned here, but everyone's planned spring is on hold, for obvious reasons.

There were beautiful pussy willows in bloom, showering yellow pollen.

A solitary pollinator was very busy. From an unphotogenic pond ringed by bleached Phragmites came the first, bright calls of spring peepers, the invisible chorus that confirms the arrival of spring. I collected some baby pine cones to turn into pine cone jam (with the delicious by-product of pine cone "honey": not honey at all, but the sweet, dark, resinous cooking syrup rendered thick by repeated boilings). My ever-present hand sanitizer was useful for dissolving the resin on my fingers.

Wandering in the dunes the tattoo'd girl and her dog were approaching and we both stepped off the sandy path to give each other at least six feet of room.

What made this trip different from any other was the fruit blossom. Lighting up the winter-brown scrub were dozens of shrubs in bloom and bud.

Bayberry and beach rose are still bare, and even the choking honeysuckle and greenbrier have not sprung back to life. The trees are leafless. At first I thought these shrubs must be native beach plums (Prunus maritima) but their shape was wrong, and the beach plum shrubs were still sprawled fast asleep, their buds tight knots against the dark bark.

These branches were upright and loose, rather than the tight knit and more horizontal habit of the beach plum, whose late summer crop is delicious. But why had I never noticed fruit, before? All these blossoms must mean fruit. Surely.

What else blooms this early, this shape? Could they be immature apricots? No. Another plum? I thought peach.

There is a community garden nearby where Friend Frank used to have his Beach Farm. Perhaps marauding raccoons or possums stole long-ago fruit and dropped the pits en route to their critter home in the tangle of the dunes. But that's a lot of pits.

Back at the car pitbul-girl had also just finished her walk, too. Two different people. One dog. Same trajectory. We smiled our COVID-smiles goodbye.

When I messaged Frank (who now lives in Minnesota), he pointed out that peaches are not known for their feral ways. I had to think again. The Prunus genus is huge.

I returned twice last week, both times with the Frenchman.

On a sheltered dune,  on a chilly, breezy evening, we had drinks ornamented with sprigs of the mystery-blossoms.

And then yesterday, after our work-at-home Friday ended at 4pm on a glorious day that defied a miserable forecast, we returned so that he could run, far from crowds.  (At home, on top of one another, or nearly, we are stressed by slow work and uncertainty, and nature is important. But our local Prospect Park has become very crowded: everyone is home and everyone has cabin fever. It is harder to avoid people who jog past you, breathing heavily. So we're uptight).

Nearer to the usually empty Breezy Point the carpark that is usually deserted in spring (except for a Russian fisherman or two) was packed. The beautiful day, the need to escape, had lured other viral refugees.

The Frenchman went for his five-mile, low-tide run to the tip of the island, but I avoided the usually peaceful beach where dogs barked and children outscreamed the oyster catchers, and disappeared along the less popular paths and empty roads.

Just a few days after I first saw them, the blossoms were now at their mysterious, magical peak. Some pale pink, some white. Clustered thickly on vertical branches.

But something was different:

Leaves had appeared. While flowers are often the easiest identifier for a plant, in a genus like Prunus with hundreds of species, the leaves can hold the key. And these were different. Not peach, not apricot, not plum, and no cherry I have ever seen. I was thrilled.

Strangely, the distinctive and fine creases or ridges (described as rugose, in botanical terms - think of beach rose, Rosa rugosa's name) reminded me strongly of jetbead, Rhodotypos scandens, an Asian shrub, although the flowers and bark were obviously wrong. But that was my first stop on Google, back at home. Maybe the larger family had this strange-flowered relative.

It didn't.

No. I had no choice. I had to plunge into that intimidating Prunus genus, hundreds of species deep. In I went, holding my nose.

Clues? Frank had made a point about saltwater inundation during Hurricane Sandy. Could it be a native shrub inured to the conditions?

A sand cherry relative? Prunus pumila var. susquehanae? No.

I began to feel a prickle of potential success once I deployed "bush" with my cherry search.  The images were looking promising. Prunus jacquemontii - Afghan bush cherry, definitely present in the US. Potential.

Prunus triloba - flowering almond. I backtracked. Googling "leaf" for each of them.

Success! I recognized the leaves in an image (large picture on the right if you click the link) in a chat thread about a different species: Prunus tomentosa.  Nanking cherry. An east Asian plant. I cross referenced its presence in New York state on the New York Flora Atlas. A tiny patch: on Long Island. Bingo.

I think its patch is bigger...

Nanking cherry.

That was around midnight. And that is why I become annoyed when people send me images of plants and say (no salutation, no please): What's this? And is it edible.

Do the work...

The Frenchman had gone to bed and said I should wake him if I found out what the blossoms were. I didn't, of course, but I left a message.

I have heard about Nanking cherry, and it seems to be popular in niche-cultivation, but it was right off my radar. Thinking back, I have a vague memory of seeing small, hard green fruits clustered right against branches of a shrub I did not know. Those strange leaves. I may even have take a picture at the time and discarded it if it was out of focus.

So that's what I think these are. The ripe, scarlet fruits will be very small, but also very edible. And if I ever chance upon them ripe (why haven't I?), I will pounce. I am thinking June.

The one remaining mystery is that the USDA describes the shrub as being intolerant of salt. So I will leave that question mark.

Walking the paths, mostly alone, sometime passed by cyclists (who greeted me), I was reminded of why we return to a place we know. Because we never know it. And the better we know it, the more we discover.

Every season, every week of a season, shows us something new. 

Just be willing to see.



  1. Strange to see so much P. tomentosa in that neck of the woods. I guess it might be as 'viral' at invading as R. rugosa or Asian honeysuckle, but I don't think I've seen it doing so here in Toronto, where it is perfectly hardy. It's definitely the earliest of the Prunus gang.

    1. Hi Janet! At least according to local flora maps this population is an anomaly. Curious...

  2. So in awe of your research skills! I wouldn't have known where to start... altho, when you showed the leaf I did think of my Viburnum plicata tormentosum - so at least a little in the ballpark leaf-wise.
    Never seen a Prunus that grows that way - interesting. Hope you find fruit in June. (Know you'll be back looking!)

    1. You're right, Win, I should also have thought of viburnum!

  3. What a lovely place for a walk!! Those blossoms are reminded me that I planted a flowering almond at my previous home, I wonder if it's still alive or if the ex chopped it down as a weed? My crabapple sapling was in the way of the weedwacker, as were a few other experiments....sigh. Nothing blooming here yet, although perhaps a crocus soon...I'm watching!

    1. Oh dear. At least he's a thing of the past. Anything up yet?

  4. well done Marie, excellent sleuthing! I love the 'in breath' comment, know the feeling, although I seldom go to that place. Good to hear you are still getting out. It's 100% lockdown here in CT.

    1. Ja, that is very rough - glad you have your garden!

  5. Have a shrub growing in zone 3 in Calgary, Canada. Mostly, I snack on a few ripe berries and leave the rest for the birds. Occasionally, I cook the fruit with sugar, then strain for a simple and delicious sauce on vanilla ice cream.

    1. Wow, that really IS cold-hardy. Are they very sour?

  6. They are pleasantly sour (to me anyway) and therefore edible straight from the plant, unlike, say, cranberries.

  7. Glad you figured it out. Funny that I don't recall them either, but I may have rarely walked the beach paths at that time of the year. Always a good call to go with an east or west Asian plant when the timing seems way off. Add this one to the Russian olives all over LI shores. I do miss it!

  8. Hey Marie, I took a photograph from your pic on my screen (using the PlantNet app), and bingo: P. tomentosa Thunb.
    Try it, it works a treat (and the app's free).


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