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Posts Tagged ‘Red maple Buds’

Last Sunday was the first warm, sunny day we’ve had in over a week so I decided to climb the High Blue trail up in Walpole. It’s actually more of a walk than a climb but with my lungs it does have enough of an uphill slant to get me huffing and puffing.

I saw that the rain we had in Keene the day before had fallen as snow here, and it hadn’t melted in shaded areas. There was no ice though.

Years ago there were hundreds of coltsfoot plants (Tussilago farfara) here but then along came a logging skidder and it plowed them all up. On this day I was happy to see that they had made a small comeback. May they be allowed to spread at will.

I could see a little white in this one, which means it was about to go to seed. I also saw lots of insects buzzing around the flowers.

Hobblebushes (Viburnum lantanoides) grow all along the first leg of the trail. In May these flower buds will open to reveal one of our most beautiful native shrub blossoms. The large white, flat flower heads are very noticeable as they bloom on hillsides along our roads. Botanically speaking the flower head is called a corymb, which is a flat topped disc shaped flower cluster. The name hobblebush comes from the way the low growing branches, unseen under last year’s fallen leaves, can trip up or “hobble” a horse or hiker. George Washington thought so highly of them he planted two at Mt. Vernon.

A huge oak tree had blown over and had taken a good piece of soil with it. It’s always surprising to see how shallow growing tree roots really are. That could be because there is lots of water here and the tree’s roots didn’t have to go deeper searching for it. The hole the uprooted tree left was full of water.

There is a lot of good farmland in Walpole and as this cornfield and hayfield show, much of it is still in use. I’ve seen signs of bear in this spot in the past but I was hopeful that I wouldn’t see any on this day.

Before you know it you’re at the trail head. You can’t miss it.

The trail narrows from here on up.

You can hunt at daybreak here but getting to your hunting spot in the dark can be a challenge, so hunters put small reflecting buttons on the trees. A flashlight will pick them out easily, I would think.

One year the meadow that was here suddenly became a cornfield and the corn attracted animals of all kinds, including bears. I’ve seen a lot of bear droppings all over this area ever since, so I carry a can of bear spray when I come here.

In Keene red maples (Acer rubrum) are producing seeds but up here their buds haven’t even opened yet.

Striped maple buds (Acer pensylvanicum) were also behind their lowland cousins.

As I neared the overlook I saw a new sign, so I decided to explore.

Yes, there were ledges and I could see that the rock pilers had been here, piling their rocks. I’m guessing that they took them from one of the stone walls, which carries a fairly hefty fine if you get caught at it. I’m always at a loss as to why anyone would do this because these piles of rock don’t mark a trail and are meaningless, for the most part.

Other than a nice quartz outcrop there was really nothing here to see; trees blocked any view there might have been.

I left the ledge and kept on toward the summit and as I usually do when I come here, I had to stop at what’s left of the old foundation. I’m not sure who lived up here but they had plenty of courage and were strong people. All of this land would have been cleared then and sheep would probably have lived in the pastures. It was a tough life in what the Walpole Town History describes as a “vast wilderness.” But it was populated; many Native Americans lived here and they weren’t afraid to show their displeasure at losing their land.

There are an estimated 259,000 miles of stone walls in the northeastern U.S., most of which are in New England, and many are here in New Hampshire. The stones were found when the recently cleared pastures were plowed and they were either tossed into piles or used to build walls, wells, foundations and many other necessities of the day. Sometimes entire houses were built of stone but wood was plentiful and easier to work with, so we don’t have too many stone houses from that time. Most of what we see is used in stone walls like this one, which cross and crisscross the countryside in every direction.

This pond on the summit must be spring fed because it never dries up completely, even in drought years when the streams dry up. I always wonder if it was the water source for the family that once lived here.

I always take a photo of the sign when I come here. What it means is that at 1588 feet above sea level the summit is higher than the surrounding terrain, and the view is always blue.

The view was blue on this day but hazy as well. Still, you could just see the ski trails over on Stratton Mountain in Vermont, which is just across the Connecticut River Valley. I sat for a while, thankful that I made it up without meeting up with any bears. I’ve heard that more and more animals are getting used to seeing fewer people these days and everything from squirrels to deer to bear are being seen in towns, walking down city streets and even sunning themselves on lawns. It makes me think that if people suddenly disappeared it wouldn’t take animals long to get used to the silence.  

When I got back to my car I found a winter dark firefly (Ellychnia corrusca) on my door handle. According to Bugguide.net, these fireflies can be a pest in sap buckets in the spring because they like maple sap, and they will also drink from wounds in maple trees. They like to sun themselves on the sunny side of trees or buildings, but this one seemed happy on a car door handle. Most fireflies live as larvae in rotting wood and forest litter near water and stay in the area they were born in, even as adults. They like it warm and humid, and this recent April day was both. They don’t seem to be afraid of people at all; I’ve gotten quite close to them several times.

Close your eyes and turn your face into the wind.
Feel it sweep along your skin in an invisible ocean of exultation.
Suddenly, you know you are alive.
~Vera Nazarian

Thanks for stopping in. Have a safe and happy weekend!

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It certainly appears that spring is upon us but those of us who have been around for a few decades are always wary of a false spring. A false spring, for those who don’t know, is a period of unusual warmth in late winter or early spring that can last long enough to bring plants and animals out of dormancy. When the normal cold temperatures return, sometimes weeks later, the plants and animals that have woken early are taken by surprise and can suffer. I haven’t seen any alarming signs of plants waking early but the bears and skunks are awake, and they’re hungry. The Fish and Game Department has been telling us to stay out of the way of the bears, which is surely good advice even if it is common sense. One of the signs of spring that I’ve always enjoyed is the way willows turn golden, as the one in the above photo has. There is a species of willow from Europe and Asia called golden willow (Salix alba vitellina) but I have no way of knowing if this tree is that one.

Another tree I always love seeing in spring is the red maple, with all of its globular red buds standing out against a blue sky. Each season seems to have its own shade of blue for the sky. A spring sky isn’t quite as crisp as a winter sky but it is still beautiful. The level of humidity in the air can make a difference in the blue of a sky because water vapor and water droplets reflect more of the blue light back into space. This means we see less blue than we do when water vapor is at a lower level. The scientific term for this phenomenon is “Mie scattering.” The sun’s angle can also make a difference in how much of the blue we see.

I found these red maple buds near the Ashuelot River in Keene and was surprised to see so much red on them. The purple bud scales slowly open to reveal more and more red and soon after this stage the actual flowers will begin to show. The flowers open at different times even on the same tree, so the likelihood of them all being wiped out by a sudden cold snap is slim. Early settlers used red maple bark to make ink, and also brown and black dyes. Native Americans used the bark medicinally to treat hives and muscle aches. Tea made from the inner bark was used to treat coughs. 

We have sugar maples where I work and someone broke a twig on one of them. The other day I noticed it was dripping sap, so syrup season is under way.

I didn’t see any dandelions blooming but that’s only because I was late getting there. There were three plants in one small area with seed heads all over them. I’ve seen them bloom in January and March but never in February, so I would have liked to have seen them.

The skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) are happy in their swamp. Bears that come out of hibernation early will sometimes eat skunk cabbages but not much else bothers them. There is little  for bears to at this time of year but a helpful reader wrote in and said that they also dig up and eat the roots of cattails. When I was taking these photos a small flock of ducks burst from the cattails not five feet from me. You won’t need a defibrillator when that happens I’ll tell you, but what struck me most about it was the sound of snarling just before the flock hit the sky. I wonder if they were being stalked by a bobcat when I came along and ruined its hunt. If so I never saw it but it was an angry snarl that didn’t sound like any duck I’ve ever heard.  

Through a process called thermogenesis skunk cabbages are able to generate temperatures far higher than the surrounding air. You can often see evidence of skunk cabbage having melted their way through several inches of solid ice. I saw plenty of the splotchy spathes but I didn’t see any that had opened to reveal the flower studded spadix within.

I went to one of my favorite places to find pussy willows and found that they had all been cut down. Luckily I know of more than one place to see them but I had to wonder why anyone would have cut them. Unless you get the roots they’ll grow right back, bushier than ever. I’ve seen willow shoots even grow from cut willow logs, so strong is their life force.

Another fuzzy bud is the magnolia, but I’m scratching my head over what is going on here. The bud scales of the magnolia are fuzzy and gray and they open and fall off when the flowers open, but here it looks like the bud scales have opened to reveal more bud scales. Could the open scales still be there from last spring? Hard to believe but possible, I suppose.

I saw some alder catkins that were still covered with the natural glue that protects the flower buds. Each brown convex bit seen here is a bud scale which will open to let the male flowers bloom. Between the bud scales is a grayish, waterproof “glue” that keeps water out. If water got in and froze, all the tiny flower buds inside would be killed. Many plants use this method to protect their buds.

You can see the same “glue” on the buds of American Elms. Also sugar maples, poplars, lilacs, and some oaks protect the buds in this way. I assume that the warming temperatures melt this waxy glue in spring so the bud scales can open.

In places with a southern exposure the snow pulls back away from the forest, and this happens because the overhanging branches have reduced the amount of snow that made it to the ground along the edges of the woods.

Though the grass in the previous shot was brown I did see some green.

I also saw some mud. They might not seem like much but green grass and mud really get the blood pumping in people who go through the kind of winters we can have here. When I was growing up it wasn’t uncommon to have shoulder deep paths through the snow drifts and 30 degree below zero F. (-34.4 C)  temperatures. In those days seeing mud in spring could make you dance for joy. But then mud season came so we put on our boots. Mud season turns our dirt roads into car swallowing quagmires each spring for a month or so.

One of the theories of why evergreen plant leaves turn purple in winter is because they don’t photosynthesize, they don’t need to produce chlorophyll. Another says the leaves dry slightly because the plant doesn’t take up as much water through its roots in winter. It is called “winter bronzing” and whatever the cause it can be beautiful, as these swamp dewberry (Rubus hispidus) leaves show. Before long they’ll go back to green and grow on without having been harmed at all.

The hairy, two part valvate bud scales of the Cornellian cherry are always open just enough to allow a peek inside. The gap between the bud scales will become more yellow as the season progresses and finally clusters of tiny star like yellow flowers will burst from the bud. These buds are small, no bigger than a pea. I’m not sue what the hairs or fibers on the right side are all about. I’ve never seen them on these buds before. Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) is an introduced ornamental flowering shrub related to dogwoods. It blooms in early spring  and has a long history with mankind; its sour red fruit has been eaten for over 7000 years, and the Persians and ancient Romans knew it well.

Daffodil leaves that have been weakened by the cold will often be yellowed and translucent but these looked good and heathy and green. Even if the plant loses its leaves to cold it can still bloom but since it has to photosynthesize to produce enough energy to bloom it probably won’t do so the following year. It might take it a year or two to recover.

I didn’t expect to see tulip leaves but there were several up in this sunny bed.

I know I just showed some lilac buds in my last post but these looked like they had been sculpted by an artist. I thought they were very beautiful and much more interesting than the plain green buds I usually see. You can see all of life, all of creation right here in these buds. Maybe that’s why I’ve spent all of my life watching lilac buds in spring.

I’ll close this post with a look at another venal witch hazel blossom, because it is a very rare thing to see flowers of any kind blooming here in February. They’re tiny little blossoms but their beauty is huge.

When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest. ~ Ernest Hemingway

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On Sunday, February 2nd Punxsutawney Phil, King of the weather predicting Groundhogs, didn’t see his shadow when he was removed from his burrow. Some might think that this simply meant that Phil woke under a cloudy sky, but it meant far more than that to The King; he immediately declared that we would see an early spring.  So, bolstered by Phil’s decree, I went off in search of spring. As you can see by the above photo, I didn’t find it; at least not right away. In fact all it has done is snow since Phil made his announcement.

This is what it looked like one morning on my way to work. Yes, it was cold too. Since Phil’s decree we reached 8 below zero F. one night; the coldest it’s been all winter. I’m voting we leave Phil in his burrow next year and let him sleep until he wants to wake up.

“Red sky at night, sailor’s delight” the old saying goes, so this beautiful evening sky gave me hope that the weather would turn.

As of this writing we’re still getting a storm each week but they’ve carried little snow. What you see here amounts to maybe 4 inches at most. After every storm it warms up and melts a lot of the snow that fell. I read recently that scientists studying our dwindling snow cover have found that trees are suffering, because when the insulating qualities of snow are gone the soil can freeze deeper, and this can kill a tree’s feeder roots. Instead of expending energy of growing new leaves and branches trees have to divert their energy to re-growing their roots. Without the life giving energy from photosynthesis that more leaves provide a tree can weaken, and that increases the possibility of attacks from insects and fungi.

When you plow even 4 inches into a pile it looks like a lot more.

But it’s melting in the woods, as this patch of American wintergreen shows. All those plants and I couldn’t find a single berry. When I was a boy my grandmother often took me walking through the woods to teach me what she knew about wild plants. One of the first plants I remember getting to know is the Eastern teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens,) also known as checkerberry or American wintergreen. My grandmother and I would pick the small red berries from the plant she always called checkerberry until we each had a handful, and then we would have a refreshing, spicy feast in the forest. Chewing the leaves can also be refreshing when hiking on a hot day. In the past, the leaves were also chewed by Native Americans to relieve pain.

Lilac buds showed no signs of opening but they did look like they might be swelling some. We dug a hole where I work and found that the frost is only 5 inches down in the ground. It’s usually much deeper and can reach nearly 4 feet in very cold winters. That’s why all of our water pipes have to be buried at least 4 feet deep, otherwise they could freeze and burst.  

I always start checking American Hazelnut (Corylus americana) bushes early for signs of life. So far the male catkins aren’t doing much and I haven’t seen any of the tiny female flowers either, but it won’t be too long. I have a feeling they’ll be early this year. When the catkins open there will be a single bright, yellow-green, male flower peeking out from under each of those diamond shaped bud scales. They grow and bloom in a spiral down the length of the catkin.

I’ve always assumed that migrating birds ate the staghorn sumac berries because nothing touches them until spring. There are thousand of berries in this one photo and not one of them has been eaten, even though I heard robins nearby. I also saw black capped chickadees and dark eyed juncos.

Nothing had been eating the wild grapes hanging from this pine tree either. I was surprised because grapes usually do get eaten quickly.

I wanted to just sit by the river and think one day-I was in that kind of mood-but every stone was covered with ice and snow so there was no dry place to sit. This is what the shoreline looked like; a half inch of ice covered everything.

But the river itself remains unfrozen. So far it hasn’t frozen over in any of the usual places this winter.

Sometimes in spring the river fills itself from bank to bank but so far this year it’s shallow enough to walk across. You’d think it was August by this photo but since we’ve had so little snow to fill it with snowmelt I wasn’t surprised.

The trees in this photo are tipped with gold and that’s a sure sign that things are changing. I think they were poplars but I couldn’t get close enough to find out for sure. Poplar buds swell early and some species have catkins that look like pussy willows.

Red maple flower buds (Acer rubrum) are small and round or oval with short stalks and 4 pairs of bud scales. The bud scales are often purple like those seen here. They have a fine fringe of pale hairs on their margins and when they start to open a tomato red color can be seen between the scales. Red maples can be tapped and syrup made from their sap but the sap gatherers have to watch the trees carefully, because the sap can become bitter when the tree flowers. Seeing the hillsides awash in a red haze from hundreds of thousands of red maple flowers is a treat that I always look forward to. Unfortunately I’ve found that it’s almost impossible to capture that beauty with a camera.

Crocus leaves poked up out of the ice.

And daffodils poked up out of the soil in a raised bed. They were a surprise.

But the biggest surprise of all came in the form of spring blooming witch hazels (Hamamelis vernalis) blossoming. Until now the earliest I’ve ever seen them bloom was February 23rd but these bloomed a full week earlier. Their strap like petals can curl up into the bud if it gets cold and then unfurl again on warm days, so you don’t see too many that have been frost bitten.

There was a large building between me and the witch hazels but I could still smell their wonderful, clean fragrance. It’s so good to see them again; I was ready for spring a month ago so I’m glad the groundhog got it right.  

It starts with a gentle southerly breeze; a soft, warm breath. The sun grows stronger and its warmth penetrates the soil a little deeper each day, and as the soil warms the yearly miracle will begin. Once started it won’t be stopped; sap is starting to flow and soon buds will swell to bursting. An indescribable beauty will cover the earth and as usual I will be here, trying to describe the indescribable. I do hope you’ll be able to get out there and see it for yourself. It’s so much better than reading about it.

Spring is when you feel like whistling, even with a shoe full of slush.  ~Doug Larson

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Spring is happening but very slowly. We just had a week with nighttime temps in the teens F. and days that hardly reached 40 degrees. This is slowing the sap flow down, according to the maple syrup producers, and it’s looking like a poor year for the industry. This farmer used traditional sap buckets to gather his sap but many have switched over to plastic tubing that runs from tree to tree and then into a large holding tank. Squirrels love sweet maple sap and will nick maple bark with their teeth and then lick it up, but they’ve discovered that chewing a hole in the plastic tubing is easier and the sap flows better, so they’re doing that instead. Because the sap is drawn through the tubing by a vacuum pump even a small hole in it causes the entire system to stop flowing. That means the farmer has to walk miles of tubing to find and patch the hole, so I’m guessing that we can expect the price of maple syrup to go up. It’s about $70.00 per gallon now. I’m also guessing that more sap gatherers will return to the old ways and hang buckets again.

The syrup farmers don’t have much time because once the trees start blossoming the sap turns bitter, and sugar maples usually flower around the second week of April.  This cluster of red maple buds (Acer rubrum) had a few opening. You can see one just above and to the right of the center of the bud group. It looks like there might be female flowers inside.

Native Americans used to also tap another member of the maple family for its sap: box elder (Acer negundo.) The twigs and buds of this tree are pruinose, which means they’re covered with white, waxy, powdery granules that reflect light in ways that often makes their surfaces appear blue. It doesn’t look like these buds have started swelling yet but they will soon. Its flowers are very beautiful and I enjoy seeing them in spring. The earliest example of a Native American flute, from 620-670 AD, was made from the wood of this tree.

I thought for sure I’d see the yellow flowers of willows appearing through the gray catkins this week but the cool weather must have held them back.

The catkins of the white poplar (Populus alba) are gray and fuzzy much like willow catkins. They grow to 3 or 4 inches long and fall from the trees in great numbers. This tree was imported from Europe in 1748 and liked it here enough to now grow in almost every state. Soon their fluffy seeds will be floating on the wind.

I saw a flock of robins throwing leaves around in the forest litter, probably hoping worms or insects were hiding beneath them. One spring I had a robin land right beside me and do the same, but these birds were skittish. These are the first robins I’ve seen in many months.

There were starlings doing the leaf flipping trick along with the robins but I couldn’t get a very good photo of them because they were even more skittish than the robins.

I went to the swamp where skunk cabbages grow and saw a pair of mallards swimming away as fast as they could go. At least I think they were mallards; I’m not good with bird identification.

The skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) are fully up now and many have opened the split in their splotchy spathes to let in insects. You wouldn’t think there would be many insects out in this weather but I’ve seen many this year on warmer days.

You can just see the round spadix with its many stubby flowers through the slit in this spathe. Photos like this one are hard to get; you’d better be prepared to get your knees wet if you want to try.

The spadix of a skunk cabbage is a one inch diameter pink or yellow, stalked flower head from which the flowers emerge. The flowers don’t have petals but they do have four 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 insects bring in from other plants. The spadix is what carries most of the skunk like odor at this point and it is thought by some that the plant uses the odor to attract flies and other insects that might pollinate it. These tiny blossoms can produce large amounts of pollen and sometimes the inside of the spadix is covered in it.

Alder catkins have started to take on quite a lot of color, as the one on the right shows. They swell up and lengthen as the season progresses and the colors change to maroon and yellow-green. They sparkle in the sunlight and make the bushes look like someone has hung jewels from the branches. When they are fully opened and the tiny male blossoms start to release pollen I’ll look for the even smaller female flowers, which look like tiny threads of scarlet red. You can just see three of the much smaller female catkins at the very top of this photo.

I saw a strangely shaped cloud. I’ve never seen another like it and can’t even guess why it had that shape. Maybe it was a good luck horseshoe.

Vernal witch hazels (Hamamelis vernalis) still bloom and perfume the air with their wonderful, clean fragrance. Their strap like petals can curl up into the bud if it gets cold and then unfurl again on warm days, so you don’t see too many that have been frost bitten. These ones have withstood temperatures as low as 15 degrees F.

The “Hamamelis” part of witch hazel’s scientific name means “together with fruit” and speaks to witch hazels being the only tree in North America which has flowers, fruit, and buds all at the same time. Though the seed pod has opened you can see in this photo how all three can appear at once; past, present and future all on one branch. The “witch” part of witch hazel comes from the Anglo Saxon word that means “to bend,” and refers to the way the branches can bend without breaking. These branches were used by the early settlers in water witching (dowsing) to find underground water.

I had to go back 3 times to do it but I finally caught these crocus blossoms fully opened. If it’s the least bit cool or cloudy they refuse to open but I was more stubborn than they were and refused to give up.

These were my favorites. How pretty is that after 5 months of winter?

There’s nothing quite like the sight and smell of green grass in spring. All thoughts of winter immediately just fly out the window.

Do you see what looks like a tiny white butterfly just to the right and just above center in this photo?

It’s a winter cress blossom; the first I’ve seen this spring. Cress is in a huge family of plants known as Brassicaceae with 150 or more species but I think this plant might be hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta,) which is a common weed that stays green under the snow all winter and blooms as soon as it melts. Its tiny flowers are about the size of Abraham Lincoln’s head on a penny. Seed pods appear quickly on this plant and explode if touched or walked on, flinging the tiny seeds up to three feet away. Each plant can throw as many as 1000 seeds so if this plant is in your yard, you should probably just learn to enjoy it.

There was something I was hoping to see; the first dandelion blossom.

At this time of year not even an orchid blossom could please me more. It looked as if it were only half awake; shaking off its long winter sleep and thinking about getting down to the business of making seeds. I haven’t seen a bee yet but I have seen quite a few smaller insects flying about.

It was such a spring day as breathes into a man an ineffable yearning, a painful sweetness, a longing that makes him stand motionless, looking at the leaves or grass, and fling out his arms to embrace he knows not what. ~ John Galsworthy

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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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I hope everyone can stand seeing more ice covered water because we have an awful lot of it here right now. This is a little pond I visit often in summer but I don’t think I’ve done so in winter, so I thought I’d give it a go. In summer it is full of fragrant white water lilies, and great blue heron, Canada geese, and ducks visit it often. I’ve seen mink and beaver here as well, so it seems to be a popular place with wildlife of all kinds. The pond ice was very shiny because we had a day of rain and warmth and then everything re-froze.

The rain washed a lot of the snow away again. It’s been going this way since November, with cold and snow one week and warmth and rain the next.

Not all the snow had disappeared but the top layer of this snow had and the tunnels of a mouse or vole became visible. There is a lot more activity under snow than a lot of people realize.

Near the shore the ice was thin and full of lacy patterns.

There are a lot of alders around the pond. You can often tell an alder from quite a distance because of all the tongue gall that grows on the female seed cones, called strobiles. They are what make these large dark bunches on the branches.

The male alder catkins (On the right) are starting to show some color. It will be a while before the much smaller female catkins on the left show any. Once they bloom tiny scarlet threads, which are the female flowers, will poke out from between the scales on the catkins. I watch for the male catkin’s release of pollen to know when to look for the almost microscopic female flowers.

Though I don’t know if this is one of their nests red winged blackbirds nest here in great numbers, and they aren’t afraid to protect their nests by flying all around your head.

They’ll use the downy seeds from the many cattails around the pond to line their nests with. This is where I first saw a female red winged blackbird grab a big white grub out of a dead cattail stem. I’ve seen them do the same in other places since. I had no idea that grubs were in cattail stems and I still don’t know what insect they turn into.

I could see a lot of plant growth under the ice.

I could also see thousands of bubbles in the ice and I wondered if they were coming from the plants.

Here was something I’ve never seen on a pond; the huge slab of ice on the right had broken away from that on the left and had fallen about 3 or 4 inches. That tells me there must be quite an air space under the ice. This happens regularly on rivers but not on ponds that I’ve seen. The ice was noisy on this day and was cracking, creaking, groaning, and grinding. If you’ve never heard the eerie sounds that ice can make you really should walk by a frozen pond or lake. You’ll hear things you’ve never heard.

You could have knocked me over with a feather when I saw these pussy willows. In January!

Much of January was warm but I didn’t think it was warm enough to coax plants into bloom. Since we’re supposed to drop below zero again this week spring might be a little different this year. I would think that extreme cold would kill off these buds, but maybe not. They do have nice fur coats.

I saw a very strange pouch like web or cocoon on a tree. It wasn’t very big; about the diameter of a pencil or maybe a little bigger. I’ve never seen anything like it and couldn’t find anything that looked like it online so I wrote to insect expert Charley Eiseman and sent him the photo. In about 5 minutes he had written back and explained that this is a tussock moth cocoon, probably made by the white marked tussock moth. The caterpillar constructed it incorporating its own hairs into the design. Tussock moth caterpillars are very hairy and their hairs can cause a rash when touched, so I’m glad I didn’t touch it. Thanks very much to Charley for the help.

If you like seeing and reading about insects Charley’s blog is the place for you. It can be found at bugtracks.wordpress.com

That isn’t water. It’s ice and yes, it was as slippery as it looks. I didn’t think I’d need my micro spikes out here so I was bare soled and sliding.

I went off the road into the brush to look at something and got snagged on these, the sharp, ripping thorns of the multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora,) which is an invasive plant from China that seems bent on taking over the world. The raspberry plant-like blossoms appear in June by the hundreds and are extremely fragrant.

Of course each blossom turns into a rose hip and birds (and squirrels) love them. That’s why and how the plants spread like they do. They crawl up and over native shrubs and take up most of the available sunlight. The native shrub, deprived of light, eventually dies.

Overhead were thousands of red maple buds. It won’t be much longer before they start to open. It usually happens sometime in mid-March.

Milk white toothed polypores (Irpex lacteus) are resupinate fungi, which means they look like they grow upside down, and that’s what many crust fungi seem to do. This is a common winter mushroom with “teeth” that are actually ragged bits of spore producing tissue which start life as pores or tubes and break apart and turn brown as they age. This fungus can often be found on the undersides of hardwood branches but these examples grew on a stump. They seem to thrive in the cold but also seem to shun direct sunlight, because I often find them on the shaded side of whatever they’re growing on.

Geum urbanum is also called herb Bennet or wood avens, and it’s originally from Europe and the Middle East. The flowers are yellow with 5 petals and have the “look” of the avens family like our native white or yellow avens. But the seed heads are very different and that’s why I think this must be the seen head of Geum urbanum. According to what I’ve read the plant’s roots have the same compounds as the clove plant and are used as a spice in soups and for flavoring ale. Modern herbalists use the plant medicinally as it has been used for many centuries. The idea for Velcro came from a plant with barbed seeds much like this example.

I think the seeds of curly dock (Rumex crispus) are very pretty but I never thought I’d see them in January. There were quite a few plants here, all full of seeds. Though the leaves of curly dock are poisonous to sheep and cattle humans can eat it. The leaves are high in beta carotene, vitamin C, and zinc and the seeds are rich in calcium. Curly dock was an important vegetable during the great depression and the humble plant kept many people alive. They are said to have a lemony flavor.

The cold of winter does things to people and it also does things to plants. Sap from conifers like the white pine and certain spruces like that seen here is usually a honey, amber color but in winter the cold can turn it blue. The deeper the blue, the colder it’s been. It’s quite a beautiful cornflower blue on this tree at the moment and that might be because we’ve seen below zero cold.

All in all I found the pond to be the same quiet, serene place in winter that it is in summer. That should be surprising because this little pond is actually a man-made retention pond that holds water for firefighting, because there is a large mall just off the edge of some of these photos. It just goes to show once again that you don’t have to go very far to enjoy nature. It’s just outside.

Looking at the pond all I could think was that it is an incredible thing how a whole world can rise from what seems like nothing at all. ~Sarah Dressen

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Last weekend I decided to go and see a bridge I wrote a post about in January of 2017 called Bridging a Dangerous Crossing.  They were still building it then but have since finished it, so I thought I’d go and see what crossing it was like. It just happens to be on the same rail trail that I grew up walking as a boy so not only would I see the bridge, but I’d see pieces of my past as well.

Back then the rail trail was a working railroad with Boston and Maine trains passing my house twice each day. I used to play in the cornfield in the above photo, which runs alongside the trail. There were lots of crows in it on this day and you can see a couple of them flying there on the right. In the fall after the corn is harvested hundreds of Canada geese also visit these fields. They’ve been doing so at least as long as I’ve been around.

If you know where to look there are good views of Mount Monadnock along the rail trail. When I was a boy it was my favorite mountain because it was always just over my shoulder no matter where I went. When I was still quite young I foolishly came up with the idea of cataloging all the plants on the mountain. In my teen years I still had the dream but I was sure someone else must have already done it. Sure enough, Henry David Thoreau had started an inventory of the mountain’s plants and it was fairly extensive, and that’s how I first discovered Henry David Thoreau. When I found that we seemed to think a lot alike I immediately read everything I could find that he had written. But I never did catalog the plants of Monadnock. The closest I came was helping the ladies of the Keene Garden Club plant wildflowers on its flanks. I wouldn’t dream of doing such a thing today but at the time it seemed the right thing to do.

Along these tracks is where my curiosity about the things I was seeing in nature grew until I couldn’t stand not knowing any longer, so I began reading to find answers to the many questions I had, like why is a young black raspberry cane blue? The answer is the same waxy “bloom” found on plums, grapes, and other fruits and plants. They and other plants along these railroad tracks were what prodded me into reading books like “Grays Manual of Botany.” Easily the driest book I’ve ever read, but I learned a lot from it. I began to visit used book stores and usually spent any money I earned on botany and gardening books, and that and a plant loving grandmother is what started me on the path to professional gardening.

I didn’t always have my nose in a book; somewhere along this rail trail my own initials are carved into the bark of a maple, much like these are.

In no time at all here was the bridge, open at last. The arch of the thing was startling because from the side it looks almost level.

Here is the bridge from the side in a photo taken in January 2017 as the concrete deck was being poured. This is why the arch in the previous view was such a surprise; I’m not really seeing such a pronounced arch from here.

Here it is again, closer to the center of the span. It’s very strange that it could look so level from the side.

Up here I was closer to the red maple (Acer rubrum) buds; thousands of them, just starting to open. If you’re looking for red maple flowers as I do each spring, look for a maple with these kinds of round bud clusters on its branches.

Red maples can look a lot like silver maples (Acer saccharinum) but if I understand what I’ve read correctly, only red maples get target canker, which causes platy bark to appear in circular target-like patterns like that seen here. Silver maples prefer damp swampy areas while red maples are more likely to grow in drier places.

The bridge was built so local college students could cross this very busy highway safely. They walk through here constantly to get to the athletic fields which lie beside the rail trail. There is a sister bridge that crosses another nearby highway, and that was originally built because someone was killed trying to cross that road. Nobody wanted to see that happen here so it was agreed that another bridge should be built. These days traffic is very heavy and I’ve waited for quite a while trying to get across. When I was a boy I could walk across this road without having to hurry at all because on many days there was hardly a car to be seen.

Once you’ve crossed the new bridge you come to the old Boston and Maine Railroad trestle. When I was a boy you could sit here all day and not see a soul, but now there’s a steady stream of college students walking across it so it took a while to get shots of it with nobody on it. When this was built there was nothing here; it was just another trestle in the middle of the woods, but now it has all grown up and there’s a huge shopping center just behind and to the left of this view. The college takes up all the land to the right, and if you follow the rail trail straight ahead you end up in downtown Keene. These days this is a very busy spot.

The railroad tracks are gone now and this portion of the rail trail has been paved, and it even gets plowed by the looks. Up just a short distance to the left is the house I grew up in, built in 1920 and changed many times since. Pass that and cross a street and you would have been at my Grandmother’s house, which is now a parking lot. Back in the film camera days when I used to sell photos I always heard that you needed the owner’s permission to publish a photo of a residence so I didn’t take a photo of my old house, but I saw that the box elder tree that I planted when I was about 10 years old is still there. It’s huge now and still shades the porch, just like I planted it to do.

This side view of the trestle shows the wooden rails that have been put up on most of these trestles by snowmobile groups. You wouldn’t want to drive a snowmobile off the edge of a trestle. This view also shows how much land the trestle covers on each end. That’s because this area floods regularly and I’ve seen the Ashuelot River rise almost to the bottom of this bridge many times.

This is “my view” of the river that I grew up with. It looks placid now but when it floods the river can swallow the land seen on the left. The local college foolishly built a student parking lot there and I’ve seen cars floating there in the not so distant past. It’s hard to tell from the photo but the land on the right where my old house still stands is slightly higher than the land on the left, so the flood waters never reached the house that I know of. The cellar sure got wet in the spring though.

Seeing this granite abutment almost completely underwater and the river pouring over the land beyond was a scary thing to a boy living just feet from the river and it has stayed with me; I still get a bit nervous when I see high water, even in photos. The granite in the abutment was harvested locally, most likely in Marlborough, which is a small town slightly west of Keene. It was brought here and laid up dry, with no mortar. It has stood just as it was built for nearly 150 years.

I spent a lot of time under the old trestle as a boy and this view looks up at it from the underside. You can see the original wooden ties, now covered by boards. When I was small I was afraid of the spaces between the ties but before too long I could almost run across, even in the dark. In fact this is where I learned that darkness comes in different shades.

I spent a lot of time sitting and watching the river from this spot beside the old trestle. It might not look like much but it was a wonderful, magical place to grow up. I was lucky that my father let me run and explore and explore I did, and I learned so much. My early years here were so enjoyable; if I had a chance to go back to any time and place I would choose this place in my childhood years, without a second thought. I hope readers with children will please let them explore nature as well. It’s what childhood should be all about.

I was surprised and happy to see that the old path from my house to the rail trail was still there and still being used, apparently. I would have given anything to have followed it home but I know that this home exists only in my memory now.  And what a memory it is. I hope you all have such great memories.

I hope you didn’t mind this little diversion from the botanical to the mechanical. I don’t mention it often but I’m a mechanical engineer as well as a gardener, so bridges and such things can give me a thrill. No thrill is as great as the one that comes with spring though, and I’ll get back to it in the next post.

Just imagine becoming the way you used to be as a very young child, before you understood the meaning of any word, before opinions took over your mind. The real you is loving, joyful, and free. The real you is just like a flower, just like the wind, just like the ocean, just like the sun. ~Miguel Angel Ruiz

Thanks for stopping in. I hope everyone has a happy Easter!

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Days above freezing (32 °F) and nights below freezing get tree sap flowing from the roots to the branches, and that means a lot of work for maple syrup producers. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup and our season usually lasts only 4 to 6 weeks, so they’re very busy at this time of year. Sugaring season usually starts in mid-February but this year it was slightly ahead of schedule, so we might see a bit more than our average 90,000 gallons.

Of course flowing sap means swelling buds, so I had to go and see what was happening. The elongated buds on this red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) were a surprise because normally they’d be almost perfectly round at this time of year. I have a feeling that they’re opening too soon, but we’ll see. I heard on the news that this February was our second mildest on record, so that might explain a few over anxious buds. When these buds open beautiful deep purple leaves will begin to unfold and then they’ll quickly turn green, so I’ll have to keep my eye on them.

Red maple (Acer rubra) buds have just started to swell a bit, as seen in the bud at about two o’clock there on the right. The outer layer of bud scales have started to pull back on several other buds as well. Red and sugar maple buds tell syrup producers when their time is nearly up, because once the trees start to blossom the sap can be bitter.

Native Americans used to tap box elders (Acer negundo) and make syrup from their sap but I don’t think today’s syrup producers tap them. They’re in the maple family but it seems to me that I’ve read that it takes too many gallons of sap to make syrup, and that isn’t profitable for today’s producers. This example looked like the bud scales might have been just starting to open. The earliest known Native American flute, dating from 620-670 AD, was made from the wood of a box elder.

The daffodils that came up before the last snow storm didn’t seem to be hurt by it at all, and that’s probably because it was relatively warm when it fell. It doesn’t always have to be below freezing for snow to fall. Last year these bulbs lost almost all of their foliage to cold.

I saw that some reticulated irises had come up too. These are usually the first flowers to bloom, even beating crocuses and snowdrops. I’ve seen snow and ice on their blossoms, and they just shrugged it off.

Odd that I didn’t see any crocus shoots but I did see these tulips. It seems very early for tulips.

In just a week the willow catkins had emerged from their bud scales. When I last checked there was no sign of them.

Before long each “pussy” will be a yellow flower. Male flowers are always brighter yellow than the female flowers. Willows cross breed freely and it’s always hard to tell exactly which species you’re looking at. Even Henry David Thoreau said “The more I study willows, the more I am confused.” I know how he felt.

There isn’t anything special about this photo, other than it shows that ice is melting from our streams and ponds, but I took it because this is where I felt that first warm breath of spring on the breeze. You can feel it and you can sense it and when you do you want to run home and throw open the windows or hug someone or dance in the street; anything to celebrate winter’s few last gasps. We might get more snow and more cold, but there is no stopping spring now.

The Ashuelot River is still alarmingly high and as I write this heavy rain is predicted Friday which, by the time you see this post, will have been yesterday. My plan is to go out today (Saturday) and see what if any damage was done. I grew up just a few yards from the river and each spring it used to do this, and it seemed that there was always a certain tightness in the air while everyone wondered if it would stay within its banks. It usually did.

Plenty of water was flowing over the dam but it wasn’t lowering the water level any. It has to flow down the Ashuelot and Connecticut Rivers before it reaches the Atlantic, and that takes time. I would guess that there are many obstructions between here and there.

At this time of year mud becomes first and foremost in many people’s minds, especially those who live on dirt roads. Mud season is our unofficial fifth season, and in mud season roads can become car swallowing quagmires. Many roads have weight limits imposed on them until the mud dries up, and any deliveries that involve heavy trucks are put on hold, usually until April or May. Some roads may even have to be closed.

According to Wikipedia Mud Season is “a period in late winter/early spring when dirt paths such as roads and hiking trails become muddy from melting snow and rain,” but that isn’t really it at all. Melting snow and rain do indeed make trails muddy, but in a cold winter like the one we’ve had the ground can freeze to a depth of 3-4 feet, and when things begin to thaw in spring they thaw from the top down. The top 16-18 inches of road thaws but all the meltwater has nowhere to go because it is sitting on top of the rock hard frozen ground two feet below. The soil at the surface then liquefies and acts like quicksand, and the above photo shows the result. Note that this car even had chains on the wheels when it got stuck.

Spring is when many animals like squirrels, skunks and raccoons get extra active. Skunks for instance eat grubs they find in the soil, so thawed ground is a magnet for them and you can often wake to a lawn full of small holes where they’ve dug. Unfortunately many people don’t realize that the skunks are doing them a great service by eating the grubs, because the grubs eat the roots of the grass and can kill it. The small holes they dig grow over quickly and by April or May you’d never know they had been there at all. The squirrel was also happy the ground had thawed and it was digging up acorns buried last fall.

Skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) came up quickly but when I saw them they looked like they had just come up, because the mottled maroon and yellow spathes hadn’t opened yet. Once the spathe opens you can see the spadix within, and that’s where the small greenish flowers grow.

You can just see how this one was starting to open down the split over its length. Since these photos are from last weekend I’m guessing that I’ll find quite a few open today. Hopefully I’ll be able to get photos of the tiny flowers.

Through a process called thermogenesis skunk cabbages can raise their temperature as much as 50 ° F above the surrounding air temperature and in so doing can melt their way through ice and snow. Why they want to come up so early is one of those mysteries of nature. There are very few insects out right now, but I do see them occasionally.

The spring blooming (Vernal) witch hazels (Hamamelis vernalis) were blooming in a local park. They are one of our earliest flowers and after a long winter much loved. I wasn’t surprised to see them because I’ve seen them blossom even after a foot of snow and near zero temperatures last year. Though they are native to the U.S. they don’t grow naturally this far north, which seems odd since they can stand so much cold.

Witch hazels are pollinated by winter moths which raise their body temperature as much as 50 degrees by shivering. This allows them to fly and search for food when it’s cold. I’ve never seen one but I’ve seen plenty of seed pods on witch hazels, so they must be doing their job. These flowers were very fragrant with a clean, spicy scent.

Spring is sooner recognized by plants than by men. ~Chinese Proverb

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I’m sure everyone has heard about the great nor’easter of 2017 that hit us last week. This photo was taken in my back yard after I got home from work. It was snowing heavily.

Getting home was difficult and took me twice as long as usual. We didn’t have true blizzard conditions here but I hope I never have to drive through a storm like that one again because the wind was blowing the snow around so much it was hard to see where I was going. Some parts of the state were hit very hard and lost power for nearly a week. This photo could have been taken in January but unfortunately it was taken on March 15th. I took one in January at this same spot that looked almost identical.

At my house I had just over 10 inches of snow when I got home, and another 2 or 3 fell that night. Some places had twice what I had here.

After a week of temperatures in the high 60s F. and bare ground during the last week of February this storm and the bitter cold afterwards were disappointing. It was almost as if winter had been rewound somehow and was starting all over again, but the sun came back out as it always does and it’s getting gradually warmer, in fits and starts. Temps are back in the high 40s and the snow is melting again.

This shot of Half Moon Pond was taken before the storm. It was frozen over at this point but the ice was melting quickly and by the time the storm hit open water could be seen. Once the storm came it froze over quickly, and so it’s now covered in snow again.

If there is one thing I’ll remember most about this winter it is the ice. It has been terrible and is everywhere, including on all of the trails that I visit. Getting around has been difficult, to say the least.

Because of all the ice we’ve had to use many thousands of tons of salt and sand on the roads and walkways. This photo shows what our roads and walks look like now; stained by salt.

Spring is still on the march but you have to look for it because many of the signs are subtle, like when last year’s beech and oak leaves finally start to fall.

Also subtle is the swelling of buds; these lilac buds are a perfect illustration of how it happens. The dark red colors on the bud scales once met, so when you saw the buds they looked completely red. But then they began swelling and the red parts pulled apart, revealing an orange stripe. When you see this you know the buds are getting bigger. Before long the scales will pull back completely, revealing the tiny flower bud cluster inside. It’s a great thing to watch happen.

A single pea size bud of a Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) illustrates how, when water taken up by the roots swells the bud, the bud scales open to reveal the flowers inside. This doesn’t happen on all plants; magnolias for instance have only a single furry bud scale that simply falls off.

In northern Greece early Neolithic people left behind remains of meals that included cornelian cherry fruit. Man has had a relationship with this now little known shrub for about 7000 years. The Persians and early Romans knew it well and Homer, Rumi, and Marcus Aurelius all probably tasted the sour red, olive like fruit, which is high in vitamin C. Cornelian cherry is in the dogwood family and is our earliest blooming member of that family, often blooming at just about the same time as forsythias do.

I was worried that the red maples (Acer rubrum) had misjudged the weather when I saw some flowers dangling on a few trees. Chances are good that the blossoms that appeared early are dead but as this photo shows, there are still plenty tucked into their bud scales.

These daffodils weren’t so lucky and these leaves are finished. They’ll probably still bloom but without leaves they can’t photosynthesize to make food, so they probably won’t bloom next year.

Some daffodils still looked good and I think what made the difference was the snow depth. Snow is a good insulator so it probably protected these budded plants from the cold, while the ones in the previous photo probably had no protection.

Once again I was amazed to see this vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) blooming after a foot of snow and temperatures barely above zero. It’s a very tough plant and one I’d like to have.

A chipmunk peeked out of his tree to see if it was spring yet. I knew just how he felt, so for an instant we probably both thought as one.

One day you stepped in snow, the next in mud, water soaked in your boots and froze them at night, it was the next worst thing to pure blizzardry, it was weather that wouldn’t let you settle. ~E.L. Doctorow

Monday the first day of spring  marked the start of my seventh year of blogging, so a big thank you to all the regular readers for putting up with it for so long. I hope I’ll be able to show you many new things this year.

Thanks for coming by.

 

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1-half-moon-pond

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.

2-thin-ice-sign

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.

3-icy-trail

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.

4-skunk-cabbage

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.

5-yellow-skunk-cabbage

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.

6-mud

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.

7-dandelion

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.

8-cress-blossom

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.

9-crocus

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.

10-daffodils

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.

11-red-maple-buds

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.

12-red-maple-buds

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.

13-pussy-willow-buds

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.

14-pussy-willow

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.

15-witch-hazwl-blossoms

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.

17-witch-hazwl-blossoms-close

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.

17-witch-hazwl-blossoms-close

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.

18-orange-witch-hazel

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.

19-puddle-ice

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.

20-sap-buckets

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!

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