OAKLAND -- Dotted along the thoroughfares and side streets throughout the Bay Area are bursts of pink and white blooms of the Flowering Plum tree, an ornamental, non-fruiting tree with flowers so beautiful it has inspired centuries of artists in paintings and poetry.
The tree is unmistakable in its look among the stark cement urban landscape with its rush of colors standing out among other street trees that have yet to regrow their leaves since fall.
They can be seen now near Children's Hospital, along the side streets around MacArthur BART and in parts of the Rockridge district.
"I jog the local streets, and it's so beautiful to run by these trees, to get that heady perfume in your face," said Steve Wethy, who has a round Flowering Plum blooming in front of his home on Genoa Street ¿in North Oakland. "It's wonderful to have this unified color this time of year, and I even love the pools of flowers below the trees."
Flowering Plum trees are winter trees, not spring ones. They only bloom for a few weeks out of the year, usually in late February and early March. They are native to Asia and because they bloom so close to the Chinese Lunar New Year, they are considered to be the "flower of the first month," said Elaine Sedlack, a horticulturalist at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden.
Sedlack, who cares for the Asian collection at the garden, said poems about the plum tree can be traced back in Chinese culture to as early as the Song Dynasty which ruled the country between 960 and 1279 A.D. In paintings, they are often paired with bamboo and pine as the "Three Friends of Winter" symbolizing perseverance, integrity and modesty.
"Plum trees are one of the most enduring and pervasive images in East Asian Art," Sedlack said. "Even now people are using them in poetry and art."
There are many varietals and hybrids of plum trees that flower in late winter. While many bear fruit, the majority planted in urban landscapes do not because the fruit-bearing trees often go unpicked and the fruit falls to the ground, said Judy Thomas, an arborist and retired horticulture professor at Merritt College.
"People love the flowers but don't want to deal with messy fruit," she said.
The trees are planted as street trees in the Bay Area because they are robust growers in this climate and have nonaggressive roots that don't tend to pull up sidewalks. It doesn't hurt that they bring a palette of color at the end of a season known for plant dormancy.
"I think they're lovely," said Chelsea Brunett who lives just down the block from Wethy in a corner home with surrounding sidewalks dominated by the trees. "It's amazing how many I see in this neighborhood. I have a lot of friends in the area, and there's at least one on every street. They make it feel like it is spring already."
While spring doesn't officially start until March 20, there are other plants and trees blooming around Oakland in late winter, Thomas said. The manzanita tree, native to the Oakland hills and in the parks, are showing white flowers now while the Pink Flowering Currant shrub, also in the Oakland hills parks, are presenting pink hanging flowers. On the city's freeways, the non-native acacia tree is offering blankets of yellow blooms.