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Posts Tagged ‘Mud Season’

With daytime temperatures above freezing the snow is melting more each day. The woods in this photo have a southern exposure so the snow melts quickly. In fact I drove by them again yesterday and saw that all the snow had melted before I could even get this post posted. Soon there will be trout lilies blooming here. False hellebore, Pennsylvania sedges and ramps also grow here and this is one of my favorite places to visit each spring.

There is still a lot of snow left to melt in places though. This pile was about ten feet high and three times that long. It’s best for it to melt slowly so it doesn’t cause any flooding so daytime temperatures in the upper 40s F. and lower 50s are best, and that’s just what we’ve been getting.

Of course all the melting makes mud and we have plenty of it this year. I’ve already come close to getting stuck in it two or three times. We call this time of year mud season, when the upper foot or two of soil thaws but anything under that stays frozen. Water can’t penetrate the frozen soil so it sits on top of it, mixing with the thawed soil and making dirt roads a muddy quagmire. It’s like quicksand and it’s hellish trying to drive through it because you’re usually stuck in it before you realize how deep it is.

As this photo shows mud season has been with us for a long time. If you Google “Mud season” you’ll see cars, trucks, school buses and just about any other vehicle you can name stuck in the mud, just like this one. Some towns in the region have already closed roads because of it. This old tin Lizzie had chains on its wheels but it still got stuck.

One of the things I enjoy most at this time of year is walking through the woods to see what the melting snow has uncovered, like the purple leaves of American wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) seen here. Though the plant is an evergreen it doesn’t photosynthesize in winter so it doesn’t need green leaves. In fact many evergreen plants have purple leaves in winter but they’ll be greening up soon. This plant is also called teaberry and checkerberry because of its minty, bright red berries.

Swamp dewberry (Rubus hispidus) also has purple leaves in winter. This is a trailing vine with white flowers and black berries that look much like blackberries. Though it acts like a prickly vine botanically it is considered a shrub. It is also called bristly blackberry but I’ve heard that the blackberry like fruit is very sour. Native Americans used the roots of this plant medicinally to treat coughs and other ailments.

It isn’t always plants that appear from under the snow. I love seeing these curled fern leaves from last year.

Puddles get very big at this time of year and some, like the one seen here on a mowed lawn, could almost be called small ponds. It had a thin layer of ice on it on this cold morning.

Trail ice unfortunately is some of the last to melt. I’m guessing it’s because it has been so packed down and has become dense. It’s very hard to walk on without ice spikes.

Did this tree look like that when it fell or has the yellow conifer parchment fungus been growing under the snow all winter? Whatever the answer, the tree was covered with it.

Conifer parchment fungus (Stereum sanguinolentum) causes brown heart rot in trees, which is a reddish brown discoloration in the wood of conifers. It is also called bleeding parchment fungus because of the red juice they exude when damaged, but so far all of the examples I’ve seen were very dry and hard, and fairly impossible to damage.

Conifer parchment fungus is beginning to concern me because I’m seeing so much of it, virtually everywhere I go. If it’s on a standing tree like this one it means a death sentence for the tree. Nature will have to run its course and find a balance; I doubt there is very much we can do to stop it.

There were mallards on the Ashuelot River but the river wasn’t quite at bank full despite all the melting going on.

Regular readers know that I like to try to catch cresting river waves with my camera, but the water level has to be just right for good waves. If the river is too high or too low the waves will be small or nonexistent. This one was small but I still wouldn’t want to be hit by it.

Instead of the usual teardrop shape ice baubles along the river took on more of a flattened disc shape this day. They look like coins on sticks in this photo.

This one looked more like an orb but it was a disc. These may be the last ice baubles I get to see this year but that’s okay. They’ll be a happy memory and I’ll be warmer.

Fan clubmoss (Lycopodium digitatum) is one of my favorite clubmosses but I don’t see it too often because it has been so over collected for Christmas wreaths and other things. A single plant can take 20 years from spore to maturity so they shouldn’t ever be disturbed. This plant gets its name from the way its branches fan out at the top of the stem.

Trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens) has made it through the winter just fine. This plant is also called Mayflower because that’s when its small, very fragrant white or pink flowers appear. It was one of my grandmother’s favorites and seeing it always makes me think of her. Even ice won’t hurt its tough, leathery leaves.

So what I hope I’ve shown in this post are all the beautiful and interesting things that are buried under the snow in winter; things like the turkey tail fungi (Trametes versicolor) above. This is the time, before plants start growing new leaves and hiding them, that is the best time to find things like this.

These are some of the most beautiful turkey tails I’ve seen and there they were, in a spot I’ve visited many times, but I’ve never seen them. I hope you’ll see something as beautiful when the snow melts where you are.

Like the seeds dreaming beneath the snow, your heart dreams of spring. Kahlil Gibran

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Both the groundhog and the National Weather Service predicted an early spring, but how early? As I write this there are only 22 days until the calendar says spring, so I thought I’d go looking for it. It’s hard to describe how or when spring happens but sometimes it starts with a hint of warmth on a breeze. You can tell that it’s different than other breezes but you don’t know why; you just know that it’s that first warm breath of spring. But that’s just one sign. There are others, like the ice starting to melt off ponds. Even though we still have cold days the ice melts slowly, and it might freeze and refreeze but the sunshine and warmth will win out and before long there will be open water where the ice was. It’s happening now; that spot of open water in this photo has slowly been getting bigger.

More and more trees, and especially willows like the one seen here, are changing into their spring golden colors. It’s something I’ve watched happen for years now, one of those first subtle hints of spring. One lady said her ponies shedding their hair was a sign of spring for her, and skunks coming out of hibernation is another. Seed displays are also popping up in stores.

Willow catkins, called “pussies,” are a sign of spring for many but this year I saw them in January.

The purple bud scales on these red maple buds (Acer rubrum) have definitely been pulling back to reveal the tomato red buds within since the last time I looked at them. The bud scales protect the bud from freezing weather, so I hope the tree knows what it is doing. I’ve seen red maples bloom too early and lose most of their flowers to frost.

I get to see this sugar maple (Acer saccharum) every day so I’m sure the bud scales have been slowly opening on it as well. But, since I haven’t seen any sap buckets yet, buds getting bigger doesn’t make much sense because it’s the sap that drives the growth.  Maybe the sap is flowing in some trees and not others. That sounds like a plausible answer, anyhow.

When I was a boy I used to get highly excited when spring came because that meant I could ride my bike to school again, and when I did I made sure to ride through as many ice covered puddles as I could. That’s why, whenever I see that thin, white, crinkly ice on a puddle it makes me think of spring. This ice wasn’t quite what I mean but it was on a puddle and it had some fantastic, feathery patterns in it.

Mud is also part of spring in these parts; so much so that we even have a “mud season.” That’s when dirt roads turn to something similar to quicksand for a week or two as things start to thaw and the frost comes out of the ground.

For me checking lilac buds is a rite of spring. I’ve been doing it for as long as I can remember, always starting about now, looking at them twice or three times a week for signs of swelling. It’s always exciting to see the bud scales finally fully open to reveal the deep purple, grape like cluster of flower buds within.

Some plants seem like they would do anything to be the first to bloom in spring, and these cress seedlings (I think) are one of those. These seedlings grew next to a building foundation where it’s a little warmer and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them blooming next week. Each plant would fit in a thimble and a whole bouquet of the white, four petaled flowers could easily hide behind a pea.

I saw some tulips up and out of the ground, standing about 3 inches high. There are bulb beds up against a building foundation and this must be why they’re up so early.

I hope those are more leaves coming along and not flower buds.

Reticulated iris grow in the same bed as the tulips. These are very early flowering plants and you can often find the tiny iris blossoms covered by snow.

Daffodils are also still up and growing in a raised bed at the local college. Raised beds drain and thaw earlier than the ground does but anything green in them can still be harmed by the cold, and those daffodils often get frost bitten. When that happens the leaves turn to mush.

I was surprised to see this beech bud curling, because curling like this is often a sign of bud break and it’s far too early for that. The curl is caused by the sun warming the cells on one side of the bud and making them grow faster than the cells on the other side. This causes a tension in the bud which will eventually cause it to open. For beech this usually means mid-May.

Here is a photo of a beech bud breaking from May 19th of last year. There are several leaves in each bud, all edged in downy, silvery angel hair. This is one of the most beautiful sights in a New England forest in spring and I’m very much looking forward to seeing it again.

I checked the skunk cabbages again and still didn’t see any of the blotchy maroon and yellow flower spathes but it shouldn’t be much longer. Since I’ve been keeping track the earliest I’ve seen them was in 2014. They were just coming up on Feb 2 that year and it looks like they might be a month later this year.

The spring blooming vernal witch hazels (Hamamelis vernalis) have bloomed earlier as well, but they’re waiting this year. The weather has been very strange so I’m not surprised. I’m guessing that once we get a week of above freezing temperatures all the early blooming plants will bloom at once.

Though they’re early bloomers I didn’t think there would be any sign of movement in magnolia buds. I just wanted to see their furry bud scales.

45 years ago I was doing some work for a man who suddenly said “Look at the bluebird on the fence.” I got a look at a beautiful blue blur and until just the other day I hadn’t ever seen another eastern bluebird. On this day there were 3 or 4 of them in a birch tree and I saw the beautiful color as I drove by. I stopped, grabbed my camera, and they actually sat still for more than a second or two; just long enough to jump out of the car and get these photos.

The bluebirds were eating the fruit (hips) of the invasive multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) and of course that just helps it spread. Blue birds, from what I’ve read, are migratory and usually return to New Hampshire to nest in March, so these birds are a true sign of spring even if they are a little early. Oddly enough that beautiful blue color doesn’t come from any blue pigment in their feathers because there isn’t any. Instead it comes from a thin layer of cells on each feather that absorbs all wavelengths of color except blue. Only the blue wavelength is reflected so when we see the beautiful blue of this bird we are actually seeing a reflection. But no matter where it comes from it certainly is a beautiful shade of blue, as this male shows.

Bluebirds are called “bluebirds of happiness” and seeing them again after so long certainly made me happy. They could have stayed a little longer but I’m very thankful that I got to see them, however brief that visit was.

But no blue, not even the brightest summer sky, seems as blue as the bluebirds of spring.
~Ron Hirschi

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1. Crocus Blossoms on Easter

I finally saw some crocus blossoms on Easter morning. They bloom in what was once a flower bed by a now vacant print shop and I was very happy to see them. Passers by might have wondered what I was doing kneeling there in the leaf strewn soil beside a busy street rather than on a prie dieu on Easter morning, but what better way to show your appreciation of the artist than by losing yourself in the beauty of his art.

2. Witch Hazel Blooms

The spring blooming witch hazels (Hamamelis) in a local park have finally blossomed. I’ve been watching them for about two weeks and have noticed that they’ve been really shy about opening this year.

3. Feather on Cornelian Cherry

I went to see if the Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) that lives near the witch hazels was blooming yet, but instead of flowers I got feathers. The bud scales have started opening though, so it won’t be long. This ancient plant is from Europe and is in the dogwood family and I look forward to seeing its small, bright yellow blossoms.

4. Alder Catkins

The brown and purple bud scales on the male catkins of speckled alders (Alnus incana) are opening wider to show the flowers beneath. These scales are on short stalks and surround a central axis. There are three flowers beneath each scale, each with a lobed calyx cup and three to five stamens with anthers covered in yellow pollen. If you watch them closely at this time of year you can see more of the yellow pollen appearing each day.

 5. Skunk Cabbage

The skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) seem to be doing really well this year. The clumps are larger with more plants and there are more clumps in this spot than I’ve seen in the past. The green shoots seen in front of the mottled spathes in this photo are future leaves which, for a short time as they begin to unfurl, will resemble cabbage leaves. You wouldn’t want to taste them though, even if you could get past the skunk like odor, because the plant contains calcium oxalate crystals which can cause a severe burning sensation of the mouth and tongue. Deer and black bears seem to be about the only ones immune to it. Another good reason to not eat skunk cabbage is because the very deadly false hellebore (Veratrum viride) often grows right beside it. Personally I don’t know why anyone would want to eat skunk cabbage but if you don’t know how to tell it from false hellebore it’s best to just leave both plants alone.

7. Skunk Cabbage Flowers

Like most arums, inside the spathe is the spadix, which in the case of skunk cabbage is a one inch round, often pink or yellow stalked flower head from which the small flowers emerge. The flowers don’t have petals but do have four yellowish sepals. The male stamens grow up through the sepals and release their pollen before the female style and pistil grow out of the flower’s center to catch any pollen that visiting insects might carry from other plants. The spadix carries most of the skunk like odor at this stage of the plant’s life, and it is thought that it uses the odor to attract flies and other early spring insects. Some describe the odor as rotting meat but it always smells skunky to me.

6. Yellow Skunk Cabbage

I’ve been seeing more yellow green skunk cabbage spathes this year than I ever have. I’m not sure what determines their color but the yellow ones appear right beside the darker red / maroon ones, so it doesn’t seem like it would be anything in the soil or water.

8. Muddy Road

Here in northern New England we have a fifth season that we call mud season, and it is now upon us. I heard on the news the other day that the mud is 12-16 inches deep in parts of the state, but I haven’t seen it that bad here yet except on logging roads. Quite often the mud gets bad enough to close unpaved roads and the logging industry virtually grinds to a halt until things dry out. 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 at this time.

 9. Brittle Cinder Fungus

Brittle cinder fungus (Kretzschmaria deusta) starts life as a beautiful soft gray crust fungus with white edges. As they age they blacken and look like burnt wood and become very brittle and are easily crushed. They grow on dead hardwoods and cause soft rot, which breaks down both cellulose and lignin. In short, this is one of the fungi that help turn wood into compost. Younger examples have a hard lumpy crust or skin, a piece of which can be seen in the upper left of the example in the photo.

10. Brittle Cinder fungus aka Kretzschmaria deusta

Here is a photo from last June which shows how beautiful the brittle crust fungus is when it’s young. It’s hard to believe that it’s the same fungus that’s in the previous photo.

11. Annulohypoxylon cohaerens Fungi

 Annulohypoxylon cohaerens fungi like beech trees (Fagus grandifolia) and that’s where I always find them. They start life brown and mature to a purplish black color, and always remind me of tiny blackberries. Each small rounded growth is about half the diameter of a pea and their lumpy appearance comes from the many nipple shaped pores from which the spores are released. They were one of the hardest things to identify that I’ve ever found in nature and I wondered what they could be for a few years. They have no common name that I can find.

12. Bigtooth Aspen Bud

Since I’m color blind I often confuse red and green so even though this aspen bud looked red to me by the time I got home I’d convinced myself that it had to have been green. Once I saw the photo it still looked red, so as usual I let my color finding software have the final say and it sees orange, brown and red. I never knew aspen buds were so colorful, and it seems that I just haven’t been paying attention. I think the tree was a bigtooth aspen (Populus grandidentata) which gets its common name from the sharply pointed teeth on its leaves.

13. April Great Blue Heron

I was surprised recently to see a great blue heron hunting last year’s cattails (Typha) in a small pond beside the road. I knew if I made a move he’d fly away, so I took this shot through my passenger window.  Most of the larger lakes and ponds are still ice covered, so I think he’s a little early. I’ve heard red winged blackbirds but no frogs yet, so he’ll probably have a fish diet for a while.

Away from the tumult of motor and mill
I want to be care-free; I want to be still!
I’m weary of doing things; weary of words
I want to be one with the blossoms and birds.

~Edgar A. Guest

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 1. Sap Buckets

People who collect maple sap the old way in buckets like these are becoming a rare breed. The sap is flowing but syrup producers say it’s coming slowly, in fits and starts, because we’ve had so many cold days. Daytime temperatures need to be in the mid-forties and nighttime temps at around 28 degrees  for optimal sap flow. Though some days and nights have been perfect it hasn’t been consistent. We’re still seeing below zero nights and, since the 4-6 week season ends in early April, each cold snap brings a renewed sense of urgency. Last year New Hampshire produced 176,000 gallons of syrup. In the abnormally warm winter of 2012 producers didn’t even see half that amount, and this year it might be cold that hinders production.

 2. Muddy Road

When we have the kind of cold we’ve had this year it drives the frost deep into the ground. In spring when the soil begins to thaw the water can’t seep into the frozen ground so it sits on top, saturating the soil to the point where it can’t hold any more water. When the soil in question happens to be a road, things can get very interesting. Here in New England we call it “mud season” and when I drove over the road in the above photo I knew it was upon us, because it felt like I was driving on gelatin. Our roads become quaking quagmires that have been known to swallow even 40 foot long school buses.  If you’d like to see some photos of mud season in all its muckiness, just click here.

 3. Peat Mosses

In the swamps, peat mosses aren’t wasting any time. They seem to green up almost immediately after the snow melts. I just read that scientists took a piece of moss from part of an Arctic ice core sample that was over 1000 years old. When they exposed it to light and warmth the ancient moss grew just fine. This moss that is now green once again was alive when Rome was in its infancy. This is why some people wonder if mosses and lichens ever really die.

 4. Skunk Cabbage 

Skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) are growing fast in spite of the cold nights. Since they produce their own heat through a process called thermogenesis, they don’t care how cold it is. This photo shows skunk cabbage spathes partly out of the soil. Once they reach full size they will open so flies can visit the flower covered spadix within.

 5. Vernal Witch Hazel 

The vernal witch hazels (Hamamelis vernalis) keep poking out their strap like petals, only to roll them back up again because of the cold. They, like the maples, are going through fits and starts this year.

 6. Red Maple Buds

Red maple (Acer rubrum) and other tree buds are swelling and the hills off in the distance have taken on a reddish haze that is impossible for me to take a photo of, so I settled for a branch. Red maples are one of the first trees to flower in spring and I always look forward to seeing them because they are very pretty. The sap can be made into syrup just like that of sugar maples but it turns bitter when the buds start to break. Since they appear earlier than those of sugar maples, the season doesn’t last as long.

 7. Red Maple Buds

Both red and sugar maple buds are high energy foods and eastern gray squirrels eat them in spring. These buds also have high moisture content and that means that squirrels don’t have to leave a tree for a drink at this time of year.

 8. New Fern Growth 

I spotted this fern growing on a boulder. The cluster of round buds in its center will grow into new shoots, called fiddleheads, before too long. The only fern in this area with fiddleheads that are safe to eat is the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris). They are considered an early spring delicacy but they need to be prepared and cooked correctly or they can make you sick. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has investigated a number of outbreaks of food-borne illness cause by raw and undercooked fiddleheads. They should always be boiled for at least 15 minutes.  Some say you can also eat lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina) and bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) fiddleheads but there is a great debate raging about the safety of eating them, so I can’t say for sure if you should or shouldn’t.

 9. Trailing Arbutus

The snow has melted enough to reveal the tough, leathery, evergreen leaves of trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens). My grandmother always called this plant mayflower but I’ve found its fragrant pinkish flowers much earlier in April. Because it has been so cold this year though, it might live up to its common name. I usually find it in mixed forests growing on sunny embankments.

 10. Oak Leaf on Snow

Last year’s oak and beech leaves are starting to fall. More signs of spring.

 11. Grasses in the Sun

The afternoon sun catching these dry grasses looked very spring like, but the scene looked better in person than it does in the photo.

12. Melting Snow

Sometimes spring comes creeping in quietly and slowly and is hardly noticeable, so we seem to go from winter right into summer. I have a feeling that this year will be that way.

Tomorrow, the first day of spring, will mark the 3 year anniversary of this blog. I remember wondering how I’d ever get through 6 months of it, so thanks go to all of you who have kept it going.

The first day of spring is one thing, and the first spring day is another. The difference between them is sometimes as great as a month.  ~Henry Van Dyke

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