February has shown us what a strange month it can be once again. After snow and cold in the first half of the month the temperatures suddenly shot up into the high sixties for the second half. This photo shows what happens when warm air meets the cold ice of a pond: fog; sometimes very heavy fog, as this was. On Saturday morning February 26th at 7:00 am it was close to sixty degrees and then warm enough to wear just a tee shirt by noon, which is just about unheard of in February in New Hampshire. By 8:00 pm they were saying we might see thunderstorms.
The ice at a local skating pond became too thin to skate on but this has really been a problem throughout the state all winter, with many people falling through the ice this year. It never really got cold enough to form the kind of ice that is thick enough for vehicles to drive on and pickup trucks and many snowmobiles have gone through the ice, in some instances with fatal results.
Unfortunately not all of the ice was thin enough to melt. The warmth melted most of the snow quickly enough to cause a flood watch to go into effect but as this photo shows, when hard packed snow melts it can turn to ice. This trail was icy in spots and completely bare in others.
What a welcome break the record breaking warmth was from the cold winds and deep snow. The skunk cabbages responded by sending up their flower spathes. Skunk cabbages can fool you into thinking they’re growing when you see the green sheath on the left, but it covers the leaf buds and appear in the fall. Only the mottled maroon and yellow flower spathe on the right shows new spring growth.
Some flower spathes can show more yellow than maroon as this one does. Bears that come out of hibernation too soon will sometimes eat skunk cabbage. There is little else for them at this time of year.
Why am I showing you mud? Because here in New Hampshire we have an unofficial 5th season called mud season. When the frost is 3 or 4 deep in the ground and the top two feet of a road thaws the melt water is sitting on frozen ground and has nowhere to go, and this results in a car swallowing quagmire that acts almost like quicksand. Those who live on unpaved roads have quite a time of it every year. The mud can sometimes be as much as 12-16 inches deep but I haven’t seen it that bad here yet this year. Quite often the mud gets bad enough to close unpaved roads and the logging and over the road shipping industries virtually grind to a halt until things dry out. Mud season has come early this year, so if you need a load of sand, gravel, loam, building materials or other such things you should be prepared to wait until April or May.
I’ve seen dandelions blooming in January but that was during an extremely warm winter when the temperature barely fell below freezing. I’ve never seen one bloom this early after a winter like the one we’ve had. To say that I was surprised would be an understatement.
Tiny white flowers bloomed in a lawn. They were so small that three or four of them could have been hidden behind a pea, so I had to kneel in the muddy grass to get a photo of them. I think it belongs to the cress family, which is large with many plants that look alike. It might be spring cress (Cardamine bulbosa,) but I’m really not sure.
These crocus blossoms were a real surprise because I’ve been checking crocus beds and have only seen the leaf tips poking out in all but this bed. I’ve also seen tulips leaves just out of the ground. They might be rushing things a bit.
Last year these daffodils came up too early and got badly frost bitten. I fear that they’re repeating the same mistake this year, because we’ve gone from the 60s back down to the 30s now.
Huge swaths of forest bleed with a red haze from red maple buds (Acer rubrum) each spring and it’s starting to happen now. I’ve tried to get photos of it from above and below, but so far I haven’t had any luck.
The bud scales on red maple buds can be deep purple in winter, but when it warms up in spring the scales pull back to reveal the tomato red buds they’ve been protecting, and that’s what causes the red haze seen on our forested hillsides. Seeing what must be millions of them together is a spring sight not soon forgotten.
I told myself I was on a fool’s errand the day I went to see if the pussy willow catkins were showing, but there they were. The single bud scales of what I think is the American pussy willow (Salix discolor) open in late winter to reveal the fuzzy gray male catkins. As these flowers age yellow stamens will appear and will begin releasing pollen. The bees will be buzzing at about that time and they will further cross pollinate the many willow varieties. Henry David Thoreau once said “The more I study willows, the more I am confused,” and I have to agree.
The Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates wrote about the medicinal properties of willow in the fifth century BC, and Native Americans across North America used the plants medicinally for pain relief for many thousands of years. Finally in 1829 scientists discovered that a compound in the bark of willows called salicin was what relieved pain. Chemically, salicin resembles aspirin.
I was surprised to see the spring (Vernal) witch hazel blooming so early. Though we do have a native vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis), it doesn’t grow naturally this far north, and since this one is in a park I’m betting it’s one of the cultivated witch hazels, so maybe it has been bred for early blooms. The other American witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) that is native to New England blooms in the fall and grows in the same park.
The Native American Mohegan tribes are believed to have been the first to show English settlers how to use Y-shaped witch hazel sticks for dowsing, an ancient method of finding underground water. Settlers all across the country used this method to find water and it was successful enough to be exported back to Europe. Its twigs are still used by dowsers in the same way today.
The Native American Osage tribe used witch hazel bark to treat skin ulcers and sores and my father always kept a bottle of witch hazel ointment for his hands. Many people have most likely used witch hazel without even realizing it; it’s a chief ingredient of Preparation H. Studies have found active compounds in witch hazel such as flavonoids, tannins (hamamelitannin and proanthocyanidins), and volatile oils that give it astringent action to stop bleeding.
Witch hazel blossoms are pollinated by owlet moths, which are active in winter and are called winter moths. These moths raise their body temperature by shivering. Their temperature can rise as much as 50 degrees and this allows them to fly and search for food when it’s cold. I think these blossoms were ready for a visit from them.
I have to say that I’m not a fan of orange witch hazel blossoms because they aren’t as bright and cheery as the yellow ones, but when it comes to fragrance the orange flowers beat the yellow hands down. I know a spot on the local college grounds where several large orange flowered shrubs grow and on this day all I had to do was follow my nose, because their clean spicy fragrance could be detected from two blocks away. Someone said the fragrance was like that of clean laundry just off the line, but I think it’s even better than that, especially after a long winter. One shrub still had a nursery tag still on it that read “Hamamelis vernalis,” so they are our native vernal witch hazels. Odd that they don’t grow naturally this far north. They seem to do well here; these examples must be 10 feet tall. If I were planting witch hazels I’d mix the yellow and orange flowered varieties; one for cheer and one for fragrance.
The paper thin white puddle ice that makes that strange tinkling sound when it’s broken always takes me back to my boyhood. Seeing this ice on puddles after a long winter meant that spring was here and though nights still got cold and icy, the days were warm and muddy. My spirits used to soar at the thought of spring when I was a boy and that’s something I’ve carried with me all of my life. The difference is now I look at the ice instead of breaking it to hear it tinkle, because I can see so much in it. The waves that formed it, bubbles and birds flying, mountains, distant suns, space and time; all are there for the seeing, but few take the time to look.
As I write this last entry the thermometer reads 34 degrees, so our week long flirtation with high spring has ended. The dandelion blossom has probably been frost bitten and the witch hazels have most likely stored away their petals for another warm day, but 34 degrees is above freezing and that’s what maple syrup producers want. Days above freezing and nights below freezing get the tree sap flowing and the sap buckets have been hung, so there’s no turning back now. True spring must surely be right around the corner.
It’s spring fever, that’s what the name of it is. And when you’ve got it, you want — oh, you don’t quite know what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so! ~Mark Twain
Thanks for coming by. Happy March first!