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Posts Tagged ‘Skunk Cabbage’

I had given up on finding any coltsfoot flowers (Tussilago farfara) last week and then there they were, blooming in a roadside ditch. I was thinking that I was just too early but a 70 degree day must have triggered their bloom. But not only them; many flowers appeared literally overnight.

From a distance a coltsfoot blossom might look like a dandelion but the flowers are often smaller than dandelions and they are usually flat, rather than the mounded shape of a dandelion. But the real clincher is the stem, which is scaly like that seen here. Dandelion stems are smooth.

They’re very pretty little flowers but they aren’t with us long. Depending on the weather and how hot it gets I’ve seen them disappear in two weeks. Coltsfoot is native to Europe and Asia and was brought here by early settlers. It has been used medicinally for centuries and another name for it is coughwort.

I went to the place where spring beauties grow last Saturday afternoon and though I saw a plant or two I didn’t see a single blossom. Then on Sunday, less than 24 hours later, there were 5 or 6 blossoms so it has started, and soon there will be thousands of them carpeting the forest floor. They’re such small flowers; each one is only slightly bigger than an aspirin, but there is a lot of beauty packed into a small package. For me spring isn’t really here until I hear the sad fee-bee mating call of the black capped chickadee and see these beautiful little flowers. Now I’ve seen and heard both and there’s no turning back; spring is in my bones.

Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) gets its common name from the way chickens peck at it. The plant is in the mint family and apparently chickens like it. The amplexicaule part of the scientific name means clasping and describes the way the hairy leaves clasp the stem. The plant is a very early bloomer and blooms throughout winter in warmer areas. Henbit is from Europe and Asia, but I can’t say that it’s invasive because I rarely see it. I’ve read that the leaves, stem, and flowers are edible and have a slightly sweet and peppery flavor. It can be eaten raw or cooked.

Fly honeysuckle (Lonicera canadensis) is one of our earliest blooming shrubs and one that not many people see unless they walk in early spring. This example that I saw recently had pink tipped buds but no flowers yet. I’d guess it would be blooming today, but as always that depends on the weather. It’s unusual flowers are joined in pairs and if pollinated they become small, red orange, oval, pointed end berries that are also joined in pairs. The flowers form on branch ends of small shrubs and many songbirds love the berries, so it would be a great addition to a wildlife garden. Look for the flowers at the end of April on the shaded edges of woods.

Red maples (Acer rubrum) are still blooming heavily and their bloom is staggered over thousands of trees, so some years it seems to go on and on. This photo is of the thread like female stigmas that catch the pollen from male trees. Soon they will become seeds; millions of them.

I found a red maple with many thousands of male flowers all blooming at once and for the first time I smelled their sweet fragrance. I had to actually put my nose right into a bud cluster to make sure the fragrance was coming from them, and it was. This tree was amazing, and just look at all that pollen.

I wish everyone could see and smell a red maple in bloom. It’s something they wouldn’t soon forget.

This box elder, another member of the maple family, was just opening its buds. Box elders (Acer negundo) have beautiful lime green female flowers and I can’t wait to show them to you.

American elm trees (Ulmus americana) are also flowering, as this shot of the male flowers shows. Though both male and female flowers appear in the same cluster on elms I didn’t see any female flowers on this example, which was one of only a handful that I could reach. Female flowers are white and wispy like feathers and male flowers have 7 to 9 stamens with dark reddish anthers. Each male flower is about 1/8 of an inch across and dangles at the end of a long flower stalk (Pedicel.)

Willows (Salix) are another plant that decided to bloom overnight. Last week these buds were still gray and fuzzy and showed no color at all. Now both male and female flowers are everywhere. These are the male blossoms seen here. They’re the showiest.

The female willow blossoms were just showing color last week and here they are on the same plant already becoming seed pods. Once it starts it happens fast, so if you want to see spring in all its wondrous forms you really have to be outside each day.

Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) was trying but still wasn’t looking much like cabbage to me. I hope I can find some of the fruit this year. I’ve never seen one and I’m guessing that their rarity must be due to most of the flowers not being pollinated.

I recently said that I thought an in-ground sprinkler system installed last fall at a local park must have destroyed the only striped squill (Puschkinia scilloides, var. libanotica) that I know of, but last weekend they were all up and blooming beautifully. 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. 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 will show. 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.

These are the first Forsythia blossoms I’ve seen this spring but they certainly won’t be the last. Soon they’ll be blooming on every street in the region. Overused? Yes, but try to imagine spring without them.

The Cornelian cherries (Cornus mas) are hedging their bets and waiting just a little longer before opening their small, waxy yellow flowers. I’d guess another week before we see them.

Bees have suddenly appeared and though this one wouldn’t pose for the camera I think it was a honeybee. I haven’t seen a bumblebee yet but I have seen hoverflies and many other insects.

Magnolias have also started to bloom, with only a handful of blossoms on each tree. This one had beautiful deep pink buds which opened to paler pink flowers.

The pretty white crocuses with purple on the outsides of their petals are still blooming but this will probably be the last time we’ll see them this year. Last week I saw a bed with hundreds of crocuses blossoming in it and by this week they had almost all gone by.

Daffodils of all color combinations have just started blooming.

As I said earlier I’m afraid it might be time to say goodbye to crocuses already so I’ll end this post with this little beauty. For a flower that is with us for such a short time their impact seems huge. They’re another flower that it’s hard to imagine going without in spring.

The spring came suddenly, bursting upon the world as a child bursts into a room, with a laugh and a shout and hands full of flowers. ~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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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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I was hoping I’d be able to show flowers on the first day of spring and, though they might not seem like much, these vernal witch hazel petals (Hamamelis vernalis) just coming out of the fuzzy buds were wonderful to see. Actually tomorrow is the first full day of spring but it does start today.

Forsythia is a shrub that takes on a kind of golden hue in spring and this year many are going for broke.

Alder (Alnus) catkins are also coloring up, preparing to open and release the pollen from the male flowers, hundreds of which are hidden behind the scales of the catkins shown here.

Willow catkins aren’t showing any color yet but I think that any day now yellow flowers will start to show among the gray fuzziness of the catkins.

Crocuses are up and budded but I didn’t see any blossoms fully open yet.

It’s great to see a crocus, blossoming or not.

There are reticulated iris in the same bed as the crocuses and I think this might be one of them. they’re very early and often are the first spring bulb to bloom.

Daffodils are still thinking about things and can’t seem to make up their minds whether it is really spring or not. Who could blame them, with 60 degrees one day and 40 the next?

I remembered that what I thought were tulips a post or two ago are actually hyacinths. They look a lot alike at this stage and I seem to make the same mistake every year.

The daylilies at a friend’s house are up and about 3 inches tall, but they get warmth from the house’s foundation. They are an early plant but I haven’t seen any anywhere else yet.

I can’t explain the feeling I got when I saw the yellow buds showing on this Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) but it was a good one. It wasn’t because the flowers are spectacular but more because it is a sure sign of spring and my heart soared at the thought of it. Many people haven’t heard of this non-native, early blooming shrub but it hails from the Mediterranean regions and was well known to Ancient Greeks and Romans. Archeological digs show that it’s small, tart, cherry red fruits have been eaten by man for thousands of years. It has quite small bright yellow, four petaled flowers that bees absolutely love.

I haven’t seen anything happening with the magnolias yet but soon their fuzzy caps will come off to reveal the buds within.

Lilac buds on the other hand, have started to open. You can see how the bud scales, which are very tight and shingle-like in winter, have started to pull away from each other. By mid-May they’ll be in full bloom and their wonderful fragrance will be on the breeze no matter where you go in this area.

Last year I saw red maple flowers (Acer rubrum) on March 25th. This means that these buds have about a week to fully open if they want to do that again and I think that they probably will because we’re supposed to have a week of above freezing temperatures.

But I’ve also seen red maple buds open too early, and the flowers have been badly frost bitten. Luckily the blossoming time of red maples is staggered from tree to tree and since not all flowers have opened there are always some that don’t get damaged by frost. In this shot the uppermost buds on the right and left look to be about ready to open.

I went to the forest where the spring beauties bloom. I didn’t expect to see any flowers but I wondered if I might see a leaf or two. I didn’t see any but they’ll be along soon. Many thousands of beautiful little spring beauties should carpet the floor of this piece of forest sometime in mid-April.

I didn’t see flowers but I saw that the beavers sure had been busy.

And so had the woodpeckers.

The mottled yellow and maroon spathes of skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) are up and so thick you have to be careful not to step on them. If you do step on one you know it; the smell of skunk can be very strong sometimes. It’s too wet where they grow right now to kneel and get a shot of the flowers inside the spathe but I hope to be able to do so soon.

That’s a leaf shoot on the left of this skunk cabbage spathe, and that’s very unusual. The leaves don’t usually appear until after the plants have bloomed. Young leaves can resemble cabbage leaves, but only for a very short time.

Here’s another beautiful vernal witch hazel that I found blooming by following the scent. I know a place where several large shrubs grow. When I visited them I couldn’t see any blossoms but I could smell them so I knew they were there somewhere. And they were; way in the back was a single branch loaded with these blossoms. Their wonderful clean scent has been compared to a load of laundry just taken in from the line, and that’s as good a description as I’ve heard. Maybe a tiny bit spicy as well for this variety.

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

Thanks for coming by. Happy first day of spring!

 

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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

Thanks for stopping in.

 

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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

Thanks for coming by.

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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

Thanks for coming by.

 

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