Breezes, wheezes and blooms on the North Country air this June
Saturday, June 28, 2014 - 6:01 pm


Driving some back roads with the windows down on a recent evening, I was struck by the heavy and heady perfumes permeating the air. Despite the fact that I had a schedule to keep, I slowed down and breathed more deeply. A great many trees and shrubs are in bloom at this time, and some are a real olfactory treat.

Perhaps the sweetest smell wafting on the breeze is that of the black locust, a tree native to North America, though a comparative newcomer to northern New York. Its white flowers hang down in wisteria-like bunches, radiating a spicy-sweet bouquet that enthralls bees and humans alike. The other day a friend referred to black locust as “northern jasmine,” a term I hadn’t heard before, but one that seems entirely justified. Black locust honey is highly prized, and many beekeepers add new supers to their hives when locust begins to bloom.

Another fragrance factory is our native wild grape, from which Concord and other slip-skin grapes are derived. Wild grape vines are plentiful but easy to overlook, as they blend in to other roadside vegetation. Although its tiny flowers are not recognizable as such to the casual passer-by, wild grape blossoms infuse a sweet aroma (that can border on saccharine at times) into the late-spring breeze.

Out and about along the edges of forest, fencerow and stream, various viburnum shrubs are showing off their umbrella-like clusters (corymbs) of white blossoms. Not all viburnum species have aromatic flowers, but our native wild raisin, black haw and arrow-wood make a lovely sight. Very soon they’ll be upstaged by the larger elderberry flower clusters (panicles), which are not only broader and more fragrant than those of viburnums, they’re edible fresh or in fritters as well.

Along with about 35 million other Americans who are allergic to airborne pollen, I deal with burning, itchy eyes and a runny nose this time of year. However, there’s no need to curse this riot of flowers—they’re not the culprits. Flowers that produce sweet aromas do so to attract insects. These insect-pollenated flowers have heavy, tacky pollen that doesn’t blow around much. Enticed by sweet-smelling nectar, insects spread the pollen that adheres to their bodies as they trick-or-treat around the blooming neighborhood.

My allergic reaction is caused by plants that use a wind-pollination strategy. Pine, ash, oak, elm and ragweed are but a few of the many plants whose dull, odorless flowers spew gobs of fine pollen grains into the air. The lemon-lime patina on your windshield is the same stuff that makes you sneeze and sniffle.

Fortunately, the bulk of pollen production will end soon, and in the meantime an occasional rain shower will rinse a lot of dust from the air. So don’t miss the honeyed breezes of early summer in order to avoid allergies. Take a stroll or a drive in the near future and get (legally and safely) intoxicated by “northern jasmine” and other sweet-smelling flowers. I promise that inhaling fully will not jeopardize political aspirations.

Paul Hetzler is a forester and Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County horticulture and natural resources educator.