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Posts Tagged ‘Skunk Cabbage’

We’re having a very strange winter here, with roller coaster temperatures falling to -10 degrees F one day and soaring to 60 degrees the next. In between we’ve seen more rain than snow and all that rain has frozen into ice, because it can’t seep into the frozen ground. I took this view of the Ashuelot River in Swanzey in one of the colder stretches. Now, a week later there is no white to be seen in this view.

A week ago there were ice skirts around the stones and now there are none.

An icicle had formed in a tree, which is a sight you don’t often see.

I had to catch a wave while I was at the river. When the sun is right they have such beautiful colors in them.

Frost figures danced across my windows one morning.

If you want to strike fear into the heart of any New Englander just tell them an ice storm is on the way. We’ve seen two so far this winter but they haven’t been bad enough to bring down trees and cause power outages. I’ve seen friends have to go for weeks with no power due to an ice storm in the past.

In an ice storm liquid rain falls on cold surfaces and ice coats everything. The added weight starts to damage trees like this birch and they begin to lose branches or fall over, bringing power lines down with them.

The more surface area exposed on the tree, the more weight the ice has. White pines (Pinus strobus) are particularly at risk of losing large limbs in an ice storm.

In spite of the crazy weather or maybe because of it, we’re having some beautiful sunrises.

I thought I saw some yellow on these male speckled alder catkins (Alnus incana) but that might be wishful thinking. Yellow or green would be pollen and pollen would mean they were flowering, and it’s too early for that. They’ll open in late March or early April after the maple sap has all been gathered, and then for a short time the bushes will look like someone has strung gold and purple jewels from the alder branches.

A bird’s nest fell off an outdoor building light where I work. It wasn’t very big but it was soft like a cushion, made mostly of mosses and grasses. It also had lichens and a few twigs in it. I think it was the nest of an eastern phoebe, which is a small gray bird about half the size of our robin. They nest all over the buildings where I work, but they don’t seem to be very smart because they will often fly into buildings when a door is opened. Chasing them out again can be a chore and it has taken two of us over an hour in the past. If you leave a door or window open and walk away they still can’t seem to find their way out again.

There was a lot of moss in the nest and it was easily the softest bird’s nest I’ve ever felt. I’ve read that eastern phoebes will take over the nests of swallows or robins but I don’t think this nest was built by either of those birds. They also re-use nests year after year, but this bird will have to re-build.

I think a lot of the moss used in the phoebe nest was white tipped moss (Hedwigia ciliata.) This is a very common moss that I find mostly growing on stones in sunny spots. It would be a very easy moss for birds to harvest.

I’ve seen lots of galls picked open by woodpeckers and other birds but I don’t see too many oak marble galls opened. I was surprised at the thickness of the walls on this one. There would be plenty to eat all winter long for the gall wasp (Andricus kollari) larva had it survived the bird.

I saw a milkweed pod where I didn’t know they grew and of course I immediately thought of coming back in summer to hopefully see some monarch butterflies. I’ve seen more each year for the last three or so, but that doesn’t mean whole flocks of them. I think I saw 6 or 7 last year.

The birds and animals didn’t get to eat all the river grapes (Vitis riparia) this year and now the ones that are left look more like raisins than anything else. I was surprised to see them because they usually go as fast as they ripen. It could be that the birds simply had enough to go around; we do have a lot of wild fruits. River grapes are known for their ability to withstand cold and have been known to survive -57 degrees F. That makes them a favorite choice for the rootstock of many well-known grape varieties. We have about 20 native species of wild grape in the U.S. and Native Americans used them all. The fruit is usually too acidic to eat from the vine so they mostly made juice and jelly from them. They were also used to dye baskets a violet gray color.

An oak leaf skittered across the snow as if it had feet. More and more oak and beech leaves are falling, signaling spring isn’t far off. I hope.

You could almost believe you were feeling the warm breath of spring when two days of 60 degree weather turned the top layer of ice on Half Moon pond in Hancock to water. Ice fishermen are having a hard time of it this year because we haven’t had a lengthy spell of really cold weather to thicken the ice.

Since we’ve had some warm days and since the groundhog said we’d have an early spring, I went looking for signs. The ice was melting around the skunk cabbage shoots but I didn’t see any of the splotchy, yellow and maroon flower spathes. They are our earliest flowers so it shouldn’t be too long before they appear. Shortly after they flower the spring blooming vernal witch hazels will start in.

You might think that seeing daffodil shoots would be a sure sign of spring but these bulbs grow in a raised bed and raised beds warm and thaw earlier, so these bulbs start growing earlier. But I’ve never seen them this early and I’m sure they are being fooled by the few days of unusual warmth. They often come up too early and get bitten by the cold, which turns their leaves to mush. I’m guessing the same will happen this year but I hope not.

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

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Last Saturday morning it was cold at about 3 degrees F. so I had to wait for it to warm up a bit before going out. My camera doesn’t perform well at anything below 10 degrees and neither do I, so I waited until the thermometer read 20 degrees before visiting a local swamp. I was hoping to show you the flock of mallards that swam here seconds before I clicked the shutter but apparently they thought my collapsible monopod was a gun, because as soon as I went to extend it off they flew. I was at the crest of the hill shown here and they were far below, but they still saw my every move.

So instead of the wildlife I concentrated on the plants that grow here, like these winterberries. Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is a native plant in the holly family and is toxic, but birds snap up the berries fairly quickly so I only saw a handful of rather puckered fruit. This plant loves wet feet so if you find it you can almost always be sure there is water nearby. Native Americans used many parts of it medicinally but they knew how to prepare it so it would cure and not make them sick.

I come to this swamp specifically because it is the only place I know of to find skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus,) which is usually our first flower to appear in spring. But as the above photo of its shoots shows the plants are there all winter, just waiting for the sign that it is warm enough to begin growing again. That date is usually in early March and the plant, through a process called thermogenesis, will grow through any amount of ice and snow to bloom. It can do that because it produces heat and can raise its temperature as much as 60 degrees F. above the surrounding air temperature. The splotchy maroon and yellow spathes are always a treat to see because they mean that spring is here, no matter what the calendar says.

Another sign of spring I watch for is when the catkins of American hazelnuts (Corylus americana) start to turn golden yellow. This is a sign that they are producing pollen and that means that the tiny scarlet threads that are the female flowers must also be showing. The bud on the right is a female bud and the tiny female flowers will grow from it in early to mid-April. A good way to tell that you have an American hazelnut and not its cousin the beaked hazelnut is by the very hairy stem seen here. Only American hazelnut has hairy stems.

The forest was nearly free of snow but the trail through it had a light coating. That’s probably because it was well packed and icy.

It hasn’t been easy to find much snow in this part of the state this year and I’m not complaining about that at all. The weather people are hinting that a stormier pattern will crop up towards the end of the week.

There was one spot in the forest that had a measurable amount of snow and I wondered why only this spot had so much.

That was because there weren’t many evergreens overhead. Evergreen trees keep an amazing amount of snow from reaching the ground.

The shiny evergreen leaves of pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata) poked up out of the snow. This plant is one of our native wintergreens and it likes to grow in undisturbed, sandy woodland soil that is on the dry side. It was once used as a flavoring in candy and soft drinks, including root beer. Its common name comes from the Native American Cree tribe, who used it medicinally to treat kidney stones. It was thought to break them up into pieces. Even though pipsissewa photosynthesizes it supplements its diet by taking certain nutrients from fungi, and for that reason it is considered partially parasitic.

The pretty little seedpods of pipsissewa persist through the winter and poke up out of the snow. They are woody and split open into 5 parts to release the tiny seeds. Each capsule is about a quarter inch across. They remind me of the seedpods of the Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora,) in some ways.

When I finally got my driver’s license at 16 I would give my grandmother rides to the cemetery to visit the family graves. Near there was a wooded area and we would walk through the woods looking for checkerberries, which we had done since I was just a small boy. I can remember her always hoping we’d find some mayflowers so she could show me what they looked like, but we never did see any. That’s because their very fragrant flowers were collected for nosegays to such an extent the plant became almost impossible to find. Another name for mayflowers is trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens,) and my grandmother would be happy to know that I’ve found several large colonies. Many plants come with memories attached and for me this one comes with some strong ones.

I saw a very large witches’ broom on a blueberry bush. This deformation is caused by a fungus and causes a very dense cluster of branches to form. Though they might look unsightly they don’t seem to harm the plant. I picked berries for many years from a bush that had a large witches’ broom on it.

One part of the swamp had frozen into a pebbled, textured pattern.

We had a small ice storm that coated the trees with ice. The sun came out but the temperature dropped so as the sun melted the ice on the trees it fell into water that was freezing below, and that’s what made these patterns in the ice. I know that because the same thing happened where I work and, since I spend a lot of time outside, I watched (and felt) it happen. Millions of pieces of ice fell from the trees, rattling and tinkling as they fell. If they hit you in the face, they hurt.

Clubmosses grew up out of the ice. These little evergreen plants are vascular so they aren’t mosses at all, but someone must have thought so at one time. They are also called princess pine, ground pine and ground cedar but they have no relationship to those trees either. Clubmosses are considered fern allies, which are vascular plants that produce spores. Horsetails and Spikemosses are also in the same family. Clubmosses were used in a medicinal tea by Native Americans and the dried spores were once used to produce the flash in photography. They are very flammable when dry.

Goldthread (Coptis trifolia) gets its common name from its bright yellow, thread like roots. Native Americans showed early colonists how to chew the roots to relieve the pain of canker sores and that led to the plant being called canker root. It became such a popular medicine that the Shakers were paying 37 cents per pound for dried roots in 1785 and people dug up all they could find. At one time more goldthread was sold in Boston than any other plant, and of course that meant the plant came close to being lost. Two centuries of being left alone have brought healing to Goldthread though, and today I see the tiny but beautiful white flowers quite regularly in April.

I finally saw some more blue / purple turkey tail fungi (Trametes versicolor.) They can be beautiful at times; like little painted fans.

The small stream that brings water from the upper part of the swamp to the lower was strangely colored orangey brown on this day. I wondered if it was some type of algae that colored it this way; I’ve never seen this here before.

Maybe it was all of the leaves in the stream that gave it its odd color, I don’t know.

A spruce tree had quite a large wound on it and a lot of resin around it. If you gently heat the resin, which is called spruce gum, of the black spruce tree (Picea mariana,) it will melt down into a liquid which can then be strained and poured into a shallow pan or other container to cool. After about half an hour it will be hardened and very brittle, and when broken into bite sized pieces it can be chewed like any other gum. Spruce gum is antiseptic and good for the teeth. It has been chewed by Native Americans for centuries and was the first chewing gum sold in the United States.

Go to the winter woods: listen there; look, watch, and ‘the dead months’ will give you a subtler secret than any you have yet found in the forest. ~ Fiona Macleod

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We had an inch or two more snow yesterday so spring seems to be unfolding excruciatingly slowly this year but I’ve discovered that it’s really my own impatience that is making it seem that way, because according to last year’s blog posts I saw my first daffodil blossom on April 15, 2017. I saw this one, the first of 2018, on April 14.

There is a bed of hyacinths that I’ve been visiting and last time I was there one plant had a bud that was much further along than all the others. Some weren’t even showing buds, but on this day every single one was blooming, just like this example. How they all suddenly caught up to each other I don’t know, but I wish you could have smelled them.

Crocuses drifted across a flower bed at the local college.

Plant breeders have been having fun with crocuses but does it make any difference to the bees, I wondered. I didn’t see a single bee on any of these. In fact I haven’t seen one yet this spring.

If you’re serious about nature study you have to get used to seeing death because it’s part of the cycle of life. All things eventually die but at times you might be surprised to find that some things are as beautiful in death as they were in life. This crocus blossom for example was dying, but I chose it as my favorite flower of the day because as the petals curled they became even more beautiful. Its death contractions gave it movement, and made this little crocus as beautiful as a parrot tulip.

I don’t know snowdrops well because nobody in my family ever grew them when I was young and later when I was gardening professionally not a single client grew them either. That could be because they don’t seem to do that well here, but I’ve discovered something about them that everyone might already know; sunlight has nothing to do with when they bloom. I’ve watched them closely this year and noticed that they don’t open on cold sunny days, but they will on warm, cloudy days. This tells me that it is temperature and not the amount of light that they go by. I wonder if anyone else has seen this.

I don’t think I’ve ever waited for a flower to bloom as long as I’ve waited for the Cornelian cherries (Cornus mas.) I think the buds started showing color more than a month ago and I’ve been checking on them ever since. This small tree in the dogwood family gets its name from its small, tart red fruits, which have been eaten by man since the Neanderthals walked this earth.

Striped squill (Puschkinia scilloides, var. libanotica) are blooming and since blue is my favorite color I’m very happy to see them. But I don’t see many; they border on rare here and I hardly ever see them. The flowers on this spring flowering bulb are about the same size as the scilla (Scilla siberica) flowers I think most of us are familiar with. They’re beautiful little things and I’d happily devote large parts of my yard to them if I could.

Though catalogs will tell you that the blue stripes are found only on the inside of the blossom they actually go through each petal and show on the outside as well as the inside, as the unopened buds in this photo show. I think it must be their simplicity that makes them so beautiful.

I was surprised to see this uncared for Forsythia blooming because just a few feet away a cared for, trimmed plant wasn’t blooming. In fact I haven’t seen another Forsythia blooming anywhere I’ve gone. Forsythia is said to forecast the weather because as the old saying goes “Three snows after the Forsythia shows.” Since I saw one blooming in February we might be okay. But I heard spring peepers singing on the same day I saw these flowers and it is also said that “Frogs will look through ice twice,” so we might not be done with the cold nights just yet.

In spite of the predictions Forsythia blossoms might bring forth nothing seems to shout spring as loudly as Forsythia, and that might be because they are on virtually every street that you travel at this time of year. They may be ho-hum common but spring would be a much duller season without their cheery blooms.

And still the vernal witch hazels (Hamamelis vernalis) bloom. I’ve never seen them bloom so long before. It must be six weeks of flowers so far this year and the only thing I can think of that is different is the prolonged cold; all through March and now April. It must be warmth that signals them to stop blooming.

I loved how wild this dandelion looked. It’s flying off in every direction at once and making itself even more beautiful in the process.

Coltsfoot flowers on the other hand, looked all neat and trim and buttoned up for spring. In fact the only similarities between coltsfoot and dandelion flowers that I can think of are the color and the fact that they often bloom at the same time. Coltsfoot has a scaly stem, a flat flower head and leaves that don’t appear until it is done flowering. Dandelions have smooth stems, mounded flower heads, and the leaves appear before the blossoms.

Last week I checked for signs of yellow trout lilies (Erythronium americanum) and there wasn’t a sign of them. This week the leaves are up everywhere and next week I expect to see at least flower buds if not flowers. Spring beauties (Claytonia virginica) grow in the same place, so I hope to be able to show you both in the next flower post. Their time here is brief; they’ll be gone by mid-May, but they’re beautiful enough to make me want to visit them regularly while they’re here.

The only time a skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) leaf resembles a cabbage leaf is right now, just as they start to unfurl. They are one of the earliest leaves to unfurl in spring and hungry bears will sometimes eat them when they can’t find anything else. I think their smell probably keeps most people from eating them.

Tiny little American hazelnut flowers (Corylus americana) are all over the bushes now so it looks like we’ll have a good crop of hazelnuts this year. Native Americans used the nuts to flavor soups and also ground them into flour. In Scotland in 1995 a large shallow pit full of burned hazelnut shells was discovered. It was estimated to be 9,000 years old, so we’ve been eating these nuts for a very long time.

Male and female red maple (Acer rubrum) flowers often grow on the same tree but I’ve never seen them grow out of the same bud cluster as these were doing. A single bud over on the left at about 10 o’clock has male flowers while all of the others have female flowers, and many other bud clusters on this tree were doing the same. Just when you think you have nature all figured out it throws you a curve ball.

Many of the willows (Salix) are in all stages of bloom now.  I’ve seen many that are fully open and some still in the gray furry catkin stage, so they should be blooming for a while yet. Though a hot spell could finish them quickly it doesn’t look like we’ll have one of those right away. The male blossoms of this particular variety of willow are slightly larger and more vibrant than the female blossoms, and easier to see from a distance. I think of them as being louder, because they seem to shout at me from a distance.

Female willow blossoms are quieter, more subdued and orderly, and their yellow green color is less intense. I always wonder why wind pollinated flowers have evolved to be so colorful. It isn’t to attract insects; even grass flowers can be beautifully colored. It’s another one of those mysteries of nature that I don’t suppose will ever be explained.

Every spring is the only spring, a perpetual astonishment. Ellis Peters

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I’ve seen reticulated iris (Iris reticulata) blossoms with snow on them in early March. They are usually our earliest garden flower but this year they decided to wait a bit. I like the dark orchid one on the right. This little iris does well in rock gardens and looks good along with miniature daffodils like tete-a-tete. They originally came from Turkey, the Caucasus, Northern Iraq and Iran. The reticulated part of their name comes from the net like pattern on the bulbs.

I love this color too but I’m not sure it works on these small irises.

Like someone flipped a switch all of the sudden there were flowers, including crocuses. These yellow ones were a photographic challenge in bright sunlight.

These purple crocuses were being blown about by the breeze. I wondered if that was why I didn’t see any bees on them even though it was a warm day.

My favorite flowers on this day were these beautiful crocus blossoms. I love the shading on the inside of each petal. There are about 90 species of crocus and each spring it seems like I see one that I’ve never seen before. They are in the iris family and originally came from Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. They grow naturally from sea level all the way to Alpine tundra, so they’re tough little plants. Though they’re not native to the Netherlands they’ve been grown there since about 1560.

I just missed the first daffodil flower.

There is a bulb bed at the local college that I’ve been struggling with since the snow melted. I remember last year kneeling before it to smell the hyacinths that grew there but this year all I saw were tulip leaves. Somehow I convinced myself that the tulip leaves must be hyacinth leaves, even though they don’t look at all alike and I knew better. The answer came with this budded hyacinth flower head when I realized that there are both tulips and hyacinths growing here. I think what confused me were the early tulips. I saw tulip leaves even before crocus or reticulated iris leaves, and that’s very early.

What I think is bittercress was blooming. Cress is in the huge family of plants known as Brassicaceae. With over 150 species it’s hard to know what you’re looking at sometimes, but hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) is a common lawn weed that stays green under the snow and blooms almost as soon as it melts. The flowers can be white, pink or lavender and are very small; no bigger than Lincoln’s head on a penny. The plant is self-fertilizing and seed pods appear quickly. The seed pods will explode if touched or walked on and can fling the tiny seeds up to 3 feet away. Plants can form up to 1000 seeds, so if you have this plant in your lawn chances are good that you always will.

Snowdrops were living up to their name on this day.

But just a few days later all the snow had gone and there were snowdrop blossoms instead of buds. This is a flower I rarely see. It seems to be rarely used here and I’m not sure why. The flowers are beautiful, especially when seen in large drifts. As well as the snowdrops, this photo shows that my macro camera isn’t very good with depth of field. It would have been a better shot if all the trailing blossoms were in focus as well.

All that melting snow and a day or two of rain have pushed the Ashuelot River to bank full again. I hope all of those April showers come in the form of a gentle drizzle. I wondered if the Canada geese had their new nests flooded; though I’ve seen them in this spot for the past several weeks there was no sign of them this day.

I think I must have been a half mile downwind of these vernal witch hazel shrubs (Hamamelis vernalis) when I first smelled them, so powerful is their fragrance. This year they’ve bloomed steadily for over a month, through four nor’easters and bitterly cold nights, so they’re very hardy. In fact I think the cold must prolong their bloom time, because I’ve never seen them bloom for so long.

Female red maple flowers (Acer rubrum) have almost fully opened now. The scarlet stigmas will grow longer before becoming pollinated and turning into winged seed pods (Samaras.) Each bud is about the size of a pea and holds several female flowers which are about the same diameter as an uncooked piece of spaghetti. Sugar maple flowers haven’t opened yet but it shouldn’t be too much longer.

The male red maple flowers aren’t as pretty as the female flowers but their pollen is important because without it there would be no viable seed. Mature red maples can produce nearly a million seeds in a single season. They are also called soft or swamp maples, even though silver maples are usually found in the wetter spots.

Grasses and sedges have started growing in areas that are wet in spring. By June this spot will be dry and the waist high grasses will have stopped growing.

Since the skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) have been blooming for about a month I thought I might see some leaves appearing but apparently the cold and snow has held even them back. Many of the mottled spathes had softened and darkened signaling the end of their bloom period, but a few still looked fresh like these two. I’m guessing that their leaves will appear soon. The new spring leaves are the only part of the plant that actually resemble a cabbage, and then only for a very short time.

One reason invasive honeysuckle shrubs are so successful is because they grow leaves and begin photosynthesizing weeks before most of our native shrubs. We have 3 invasive honeysuckles here in New Hampshire. Bell’s honeysuckle (Lonicera x bella) has whitish to pink flowers that fade to yellow, along with slightly hairy stems and leaf undersides. They are very common. Morrow’s Honeysuckle (Lonicera morrowii) also has whitish pink flowers but they’re on long, slightly hairy flower stalks. The leaves are also slightly hairy on the underside. Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica) is the prettiest among the invasives, having pink or red flowers on long stalks. Its leaves are hairless on the undersides. Stems of all three shrubs are hollow while native honeysuckle stems are solid. It is illegal to sell, propagate or plant these shrubs in New Hampshire.

The willows still haven’t produced flowers but the fuzzy gray catkins are much bigger now than they were just a week ago, so I decided to look a little closer.

In the right light I could see the yellow willow flower buds just under the gray fuzz. Any day now there should be bright yellow flowers on this bush.

I’m finally seeing robins and I watched this one pull a worm out of the lawn he was on and gulp it down. That means the soil is well thawed, so the spring explosion of growth is right on schedule in spite of the wintery March. Nature always seems to balance things out somehow.

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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The weather people are saying we’re in a “very active pattern” right now. The rest of us are saying “enough.” It wasn’t that long ago when the ground was bare except for plowed up snow piles, but then winter decided it wasn’t finished and we’ve had one nor’easter after another ever since. The first was rain, the second was snow, and the third is snow. Snow at this time of year doesn’t usually stay long but the cooler temperatures of late mean that it’s melting slower than many of us would like.

Despite the storms spring is definitely close at hand. Canada geese have returned and have taken up residence in the Ashuelot River. Soon they’ll be choosing nesting sites.

Willows are shouting spring. I love how they take on this golden color in the spring. It seems unusual that a tree’s branches rather than its foliage would change color, but there they are. Forsythia bushes sometimes do the same thing.

The willow in the previous photo isn’t a “pussy willow” but I did go and visit some. The fuzzy catkins hadn’t changed much since last week but they can grow into yellow flowers quickly. It happened so fast last year that I never did get a good photo of a willow flower. This year I’ll be keeping an eye on them.

The vernal witch hazels have just about bloomed themselves out I think, after blooming for two or three weeks now with storm after storm thrown at them.

It isn’t the cold or snow that will finish their blooming though, it is simply time. You can see in this photo how almost all the petals are brown on their tips. If the winter moths have done their job and pollinated them there will be plenty of seed pods next year. After a year on the bush witch hazel seed pods open with explosive force and can hurl the seeds for many yards. It is said that you can hear them snapping open but it’s a case of being in the right place at the right time, and so far I haven’t been.

Hollyhocks were a surprise. At least I think they’re hollyhocks. I don’t remember them coming along so early, and I used to work for people who grew them. Now I wonder if they aren’t evergreen.

I’ve remembered that the extremely early tulips I’ve been telling you about are actually hyacinths. I remembered their wonderful scent from last year as I was taking their photo. There will be deep blue and pink blossoms here before too long.

Maple syrup makers won’t want to hear this but the red maple flower clusters (Acer rubrum) have opened. You can just see the first flowers peeking out on the right in this poor photo. It’ll still be a while before the flowers unfurl, but they’re on the way and they’re beautiful to see in spring. There are so many red maple trees that the forest comes alive with a red haze when they all bloom together.

I also checked on striped maples (Acer pensylvanicum) but didn’t see any signs of bud break. This is one of those tree buds I most look forward to seeing open, because the pink and orange buds are beautiful when they first open.

Here’s a preview of what those striped maple buds will look like in late April or early May. A tree full of them is really something to see.

I found this mountain of snow when I went to visit the skunk cabbages. It will be a while before it and what was added to it yesterday disappears.

The swamp where the skunk cabbages grow is also home to thousands of spring peepers. On a warm spring day you can often find this part of their swamp filled with floating, chirping frogs, but this was not a warm day and in any event I haven’t heard the frogs singing at night yet. I also still haven’t heard red winged blackbirds or seen any turtles, but spring is moving forward so it shouldn’t be long.

The skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) were melting their way through the snow. I’ve seen a surprising number of insects flying around on warmer days so if the plants can stay uncovered they have a good chance of being pollinated.

I went to see how the alders were doing and got this shot of both male and female catkins on the same branch. This doesn’t happen often so I was happy to finally get them both in the same frame. The longer lower ones are the male catkins and the smaller ones at the top are the female catkins. When they’ve been pollinated the female catkins will become the small cone shaped seed bearing strobiles that I think most of us are probably familiar with. I was hoping to see pollen on the male catkins, but not quite yet.

While I was poking around looking at alders I noticed a bird’s nest. I wondered if it was a used red winged blackbird’s nest, because they vigorously defend this area when they’re here.

I checked the female buds of American hazelnuts (Corylus americana,) but I didn’t see any flowers yet. Last year they bloomed near March first but this year the weather must be holding them back. Any time now though the tiny scarlet threads that are the female stigmas will appear.

The daffodils still hang on even though winter has thrown everything it has at them. Last year they came up too early and their leaves turned to mush, so it’ll be interesting to see if they have enough strength left to bloom this year. I haven’t seen any flower buds yet.

The daylilies also made it through the last storm, but I wonder if they’ll make it all the way.

Crocuses are coming up and trying to bloom where the snow is thin. Unfortunately it isn’t thin in many places at the moment.

The biggest surprise on this day was a blooming dandelion. It wouldn’t win a prize in a flower show but it was a flower, and the plant had many buds. No matter what the calendar says this dandelion says spring is here. That along with the fact that we now have an extra hour of daylight at the end of the day is enough to bring on a good case of spring fever.

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

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We had a big storm here last Friday but we saw more rain than snow, and little wind. I’ve heard that upstate New York saw 2-3 feet of snow and in Pennsylvania semi-trucks were blown over by the wind, so we got off relatively easy. We did see flooding in places as this photo of a flooded forest shows, but not enough to cause any real damage. Things may change again today, because the weather people are saying we might see as much as 18 inches of snow from this afternoon through nightfall on Thursday.

The Ashuelot River spilled out into this pasture but this is expected in spring and there are no buildings within the flood zone.

I think it was just 2 weeks ago when I watched people skating on this pond. Now there is open water. I was hoping to see some ducks or spring peepers but I didn’t see either.

Though our days have been warm, mostly in the 50s F, our mornings are still cold enough for puddle ice. This ice is very thin and often white because of all the oxygen bubbles in it, and it tinkles when you break it. Nothing says spring to me quite like puddle ice, because when I was a boy I used to ride my bike through it in the spring as soon as the snow melted. You can see many things in this ice, but on this morning it was a simple starburst.

I noticed that the hairy bud scales on a Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) had opened to reveal the bright yellow flower buds they’ve been protecting. Once pollinated in mid-April the flowers will become sour red fruits that have been eaten by man for about 7000 years. In northern Greece early Neolithic people left behind remains of meals that included Cornelian cherry fruit and Homer, Rumi, and Marcus Aurelius all probably tasted the fruit. I would if I could ever find one but apparently the birds snap them up quickly, because I’ve never seen one.

I’ve been staring at this photo of a crocus blossom trying to figure out exactly what is going on, because you shouldn’t be able to see the central anthers in a closed crocus blossom. I finally realized that it has been cut in half lengthwise, so you can indeed see inside the blossom to the reproductive parts. Why or how anyone would do this while the plant was actually in the ground growing and blossoming is a mystery to me, but it is an interesting look at something rarely seen.

Another plant I was hoping to get a look inside was a skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) so I went to visit them in their swamp and saw that many of the mottled spathes had opened since I was last here. I could see the spadix covered with flowers in this one, but could I get a shot of it?

I was able to, barely. The spadix is a one inch diameter pink or yellow, stalked flower head from which the small flowers emerge. The flowers don’t have petals but 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 carries most of the skunk like odor at this point and it is thought by some that it uses the odor to attract flies and other insects that might pollinate it. Sometimes the spadix is covered with pollen but this one hadn’t seen any yet so the male flowers must have just opened.

I saw some over-anxious daylilies. I hope they know what they’re doing. They could easily find themselves under a foot of snow tomorrow. March can be a fickle month with 50 degrees one day and snow the next and right now the forecast looks wild.

Ever so slowly the buds of red maple (Acer rubrum) are opening. The purple bud scales pull back to reveal the tomato red buds within. It probably won’t be long before they blossom, unless we get a cold snap with the coming storm.

The vernal witch hazels are blooming with great abandon now, even though this day was a cool one. We probably won’t see another display like this one until the forsythias bloom.

I couldn’t tell if this blueberry bud was opening or not but it showed me that spiders are active, even in winter.

It looked like this huge old mother white pine tree held her baby in her arms and it reminded me of the book The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. I’m reading it now and it’s a book that I’d highly recommend to anyone who is interested in learning more about nature.

If a forest is a cathedral, then this is its stained glass.

I saw some beautifully colored turkey tail fungi (Trametes versicolor.) Someday I hope to find out what determines their color. They seem to all be different so I would think that the wood they grow on must play a part in their coloration, but I haven’t ever been able to find anything written on the subject.

I was walking the grounds of the local college looking for blooming flowers when I came upon this Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata.) The vine has nothing to do with Boston and it isn’t a true ivy, but it is the reason colleges are called “Ivy League.” Boston ivy is actually in the grape family and originally came from China and Japan.

Boston ivy will climb just about anything by attaching itself with tiny circular pads that form at the ends of its tendrils. The vine secretes calcium carbonate and uses it to glue itself to whatever surface it grows on, in this case brick. The glue can support up to 260 times its own weight and if you’ve ever tried to pull Boston ivy off a building you know how sticky it is.

I’m not wild about stone walls that were built with mortar but sidewalk firedot lichens (Caloplaca feracissima) sure are. These bright orange lichens love the lime used in cement and can often be found growing on concrete sidewalks, and that’s where their common name comes from. When you find them growing on stone in the woods it’s a great sign that you’re in an area with a lot of limestone, and there’s a good chance that you’ll find other lime loving plants, like many of our native orchids.

Sidewalk firedot lichens appear very granular and often show fruiting bodies but this example was quite dry and I couldn’t see that it was producing spores anywhere.

A pile of fallen fern leaves reminded me of nautili swimming under the sea. It is interesting how nature uses the same shapes over and over, especially spirals. The spiral was considered sacred geometry by ancient civilizations and is still used today. Sacred geometry involves sacred universal patterns used in the design of everything in our reality. Spirals for instance, can be found in everything from the nautilus to the sunflower and from our own DNA to entire galaxies.

Despite the forecast, live like it’s spring. ~Lilly Pulitzer

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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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