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Posts Tagged ‘Skunk Cabbages’

Have you ever gone outside on a spring morning and found the day so beautiful you wanted to throw out your arms and shout thank you? That’s what this day started like, with a beautiful blue sky and wall to wall sunshine. And with all of the red maples so full of red buds; I knew I had to go and find some flowers.

But it was still a little cool and I was afraid most flowers wouldn’t have opened yet, so I went to the river. I found ice baubles had grown over night on the shrubs that line the riverbank, so it had gotten colder than I thought.

The ice baubles form when river water splashes onto a twig or anything else and freezes. Slowly, splash by splash often a round ice ball will form. They’re usually as clear as crystal but these seemed to have a lot of bubbles in them.

There were waves on the river so I thought I’d practice catching one with my camera. I don’t use burst mode; when each wave comes I click the shutter, but it isn’t quite as easy as it sounds because there can be three or four small waves between big ones, so you have to sync yourself to the rhythm of the river. Sometimes you get a miss like this shot was. Just a bit too early for a really good curl but I love the colors.

And sometimes you’re a little too late. I find that there are times when I can “give myself” to the river and get shot after shot of breaking waves. I can’t really describe what giving myself to the river is, but your mind clears and you shoot each wave almost without really trying. I sometimes call it stepping out of myself or losing myself, and it’s always wonderful when it happens. You find that you can do things you didn’t know you could do, like reading waves.

As I was leaving the river I saw a bit of ice in a depression in a boulder. It looked like it had a face in it. Was it an elf? It was wearing a stocking cap, whatever it was.

Wildflowers are coming along and I saw my first dandelion. Since I found one blooming in February last year I’ve now seen dandelions blooming in every month of the year. Believe it or not I have more trouble finding them in summer these days than I do in the colder months. I know many people think of dandelions as weeds but to me all flowers are beautiful and there’s nothing cheerier than a field of dandelion blossoms in March. In fact one of the most beautiful sights I’ve seen was a field of dandelions and violets all blooming together. My grandmother used to cook dandelion greens like spinach for me, so I suppose they’re part of me.

I also saw henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) blooming. Henbit 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. It’s 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.

Here is what the foliage of henbit looks like for those who have never seen it. I find growing along with ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea), which the foliage resembles in shape but not in habit. Henbit stands taller than ground ivy and the leaves are a different shade of green in early spring. Those of ground ivy lean more toward dark purple in early spring.

I also saw what I think were some very crinkly hollyhock leaves. I don’t know if they appear very early or if they live under the snow all winter.

We who live in New England have a fifth season called “mud season” and it is upon us now. Sometimes it can really be brutal; in the old days schools were often closed for a month because of it.

Here is a view, courtesy of the Cheshire County Historical Society, of what mud season can do. This was taken in Westmoreland, New Hampshire sometime in the 1940s. Gravel roads become a sea of mud and very little in the way of motorized transport can get through it. It begins when the upper foot or two of soil thaws but anything under that stays frozen. Water can’t penetrate the frozen soil so it sits on top of it, mixing with the thawed soil and making dirt roads a muddy quagmire. It’s like quicksand and it’s hellish trying to drive through it because you’re usually stuck in it before you realize how deep it is.

Snowdrops were living up to their name up in Hancock where there is still snow. When I was gardening professionally not a single client grew snowdrops and as far as I know nobody in my family did either, so I don’t know them well. I do know that they’re scarce in this area; I see small clumps of 4 or 5 flowers here and there every spring but not the huge drifts of them that I’ve seen online. They simply don’t seem to like it here and that could be because they aren’t used to our kind of below zero cold. I’ve read that they’re in the amaryllis family so maybe that’s why.  

I went to see the budded daffodils that I saw last week. I was sure they’d be blooming but not yet. We’ve had a coolish week so maybe they’re waiting for that silent signal. I have a feeling these will be white daffodils because of the bud shape. Of course they might not open at all; I once worked for an English lady who complained about bud blast in her white daffodils. Most springs they would start to open and then, just as they were showing a little color they would die off. Either a freeze or a hot spell can cause it and these have been through both. White varieties appear to be much more susceptible to bud blast than the yellows.

Tulips are growing fast. These had doubled in size in a week.

One of my favorite spring bulbs, the reticulated iris, doesn’t seem to be doing well this year. Or maybe they’re just Petering out. I’ve never grown any myself but I’ve heard they just fade out after awhile.

I went to see if the skunk cabbages were showing any foliage growth yet but didn’t see a single leaf. The ground had thawed in their swamp so rather than kneel down it wet mud I sat on a hummock beside them to get this shot with my phone. I thought about that silent signal as I sat there; the one that calls the red winged blackbirds back and makes the spring peepers peep and the turtles come up out of the mud. It’s doubtful that the signal is heard by the critters, I thought, so it must be felt. But if that is so, why can’t I feel it? But then I thought about how I wanted to throw out my arms and shout my joy that morning and wondered if maybe I did feel it and just didn’t know it. The things that come to mind when you’re sitting on a hummock in a swamp.

I would have bet breakfast that the willows would be in bloom but they held back like the daffodils. In fact many things are holding back but this week is supposed to be in the 50s and 60s, so that should coax all the plants that haven’t dared to dip their toes into spring to finally jump in with a splash.

The violas were still blooming just the way they were a week previous, so the weather doesn’t bother them at all. The pansy family is made up of cool weather lovers anyhow, so I wasn’t surprised.

The witch hazels were still going strong too. What a glorious fragrance!

Crocuses certainly aren’t holding back. Blue (purple?) ones have joined the yellows I saw last week. The gardener is going to wish he’d raked those leaves before the flowers came up. Now he or she is going to have to hand pick them.

This one is certainly purple, and very beautiful as well. The first crocuses of the year just do something to you. They let you know that yes, spring really is here despite the forecast.

These crocuses grow under redbud trees and don’t see sunlight until the afternoon so they hadn’t opened yet. I was disappointed until I saw how beautiful the unopened blossoms were, and then I didn’t care. How lucky we are to have such beauty in our lives. And everywhere you look, too. It really is a wonder we can get anything done.

Behold, my friends, the spring is come; the earth has gladly received the embraces of the sun, and we shall soon see the results of their love! ~Sitting Bull

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We’re still on the weather roller coaster but it is slowly warming up and the snow is melting, as the melt ring around this pinecone shows. I was happy when I found this because it answered a question that I’ve had for a long time: why do melt rings form around tree trunks? As the pinecone shows it has to be the sun warming it up, and as the pinecone releases that warmth the snow around it melts. Or maybe it’s simply heat radiating from the pinecone during the day when the sun is shining. The dark cone would absorb more sunlight than the white snow would.

Here is a melt ring just getting started around this tree. A study done by Emeritus Professor of Botany Lawrence J. Winship of Hampshire College, where he used an infrared thermometer to measure heat radiated by tree trunks, found that the sunny side of a red oak was 54 degrees F. while the shaded side was just 29 degrees F. And the ground temperature was also 29 degrees, which means it was frozen. This shows that trees really absorb a lot of heat from the sun and it must be that when the heat is radiated back into the surroundings it melts the snow. The professor found that the same was true on fence posts and stumps so the subject being alive had nothing to do with it, even though a living tree should have much more heat absorbing water in it. In my mind, the pinecone in the previous photo answers the question of melt rings.

But I didn’t have long to wonder about melt rings on trees because on Monday March 4th we got about 6 inches of new snow. This shows part of my drive to work that day.

I pass this scene almost every day so I can see if the ice is melting. It was and then it wasn’t. Winter can be very beautiful but the pull of spring fever can be terribly strong. By this time of year almost everybody but is ready for spring and waiting impatiently.

It’s hard these days to follow a trail that hasn’t been broken. It never used to be but things change. I’ve never been a real fan of snowshoes so I used to just trudge through it, even if it was up to my knees, but going any real distance through snow much deeper than your knees is a struggle at any age and in any condition, and these days I avoid it.

But as I said it can be beautiful enough to stop you in your tracks. Every season has its own beauty, as this early morning view of Half Moon Pond in Hancock shows.

No matter what the sun always appears again and it was very beautiful on this eastern hemlock tree, I thought. I think algae colored its trunk and the sun came along and lit it up. You can walk just about anywhere in nature and find beauty like this any day of the week, and if that isn’t a gift I don’t know what is.

It’s amazing how a little sunlight can transform the simple into something beautiful, as it did with these deer tongue grass leaves.

I don’t think I’ve ever shown icicles hanging from the eaves on this blog before, but that might be because they are so common. You see them on just about every structure in winter.

I love the way icicles sparkle with color in the sun like prisms. This shot doesn’t quite catch it but there was a lot more color in them.

One cold morning frost flowers bloomed on the ice of mud puddles. They form when the frost point in the air is reached and water vapor condenses into ice. They are a form of hoarfrost, so delicate that a touch of a finger or a warm breath will destroy them. In my experience it has to be very cold for them to form, but there also has to be plenty of water vapor in the air. That’s why hoarfrost is often found near streams and ponds.

Mount Monadnock is an old friend, there in my earliest memories, and it is always at its most beautiful when snow frosts its peak. I would guess the snow must be at least 5 feet deep near the summit. I was up there with a friend of mine on April 19th one year and it was about chest deep in places. We had to climb over it and kind of swim through it rather than trying to break a trail through it. The air was warm and the snow was melting, and the fog generated by the cold snow and warm air mixing together was so dense you could barely see your hand at the end of an outstretched arm. I don’t think I’ve ever been as wet as I was that day.

Tramp art was done by chipping and whittling a piece of wood with a pocket knife. Often pieces of wood from cigar boxes and orange crates were turned into picture frames and other household items which were sold for meager amounts of money. That’s what this piece of branch reminded me of when I saw it but the hand of man played no part in this art; it was made entirely by engraver beetles and was very beautiful, I thought. I wish I had kept it and brought it home but then if I had the next hiker to come along couldn’t have marveled at its insect carved hieroglyphics as I did.

I’ve taken many photos of frullania liverworts throughout the winter but never posted any of them because it’s a tough plant to get a good shot of. It’s a leafy liverwort but each leaf is smaller than a house fly so it isn’t an easy subject. There are about 800 species of frullania liverworts and many grow as epiphytes on the bark of trees where the humidity is high. Epiphytic plants take nothing from the host plants they grow on; instead they simply perch there like birds. Mosses and lichens are also epiphytes.

The liverwort’s tiny leaves are strung together like beads, and change from green to deep purple in cold weather. Frullania liverworts can cause a rash called woodcutter’s eczema in some people. It’s an annoying, itchy rash but doesn’t cause any real harm, and it disappears in a week or two if you stop handling logs with liverworts on them.

This post started with winter but it will end with spring, and that illustrates how quickly one season can change into another here in the northeast. Sometimes it’s as if someone flipped a switch, and it’s what inspired Mark Twain’s “If you don’t like the weather in New England just wait a few minutes” quote. Here our earliest flowering plant, the skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus,) has finally shown its mottled yellow and maroon flower spathes.

Some are yellow with maroon spots and some are maroon with yellow spots. It’s good to finally see them no matter what colors they choose to wear. The spathes shown here appear first and multiple flowers grow inside the spathe on a spadix. Soon the spathes will begin to open so insects can enter and pollinate the tiny flowers, and so a photographer or two might get some photos of them.

Sap collecting has begun but you’d hardly know it these days. When I was a boy it seemed like every yard had trees with sap buckets hanging from them in spring but I had to search long and hard to find just a few this year, and I fear family sap gathering a dying art. Nobody knows when or where sap gathering started but most agree that it was learned from Native Americans. They used to cut a V notch into the bark of a tree and then put a wedge at the bottom of the cut. The sap would drip from the wedge into buckets made of bark or woven reeds, or sometimes into wooden bowls. They would then boil it down until it thickened and became syrup.

This Library of Congress photo from the early 1900s shows a Native American woman tapping trees and gathering the sap in what appears to be bark buckets, which it looks like she is making. Birch bark buckets are entirely plausible since they made canoes from the same bark. Sticky pine or spruce sap on the seams made their canoes leak proof. Since it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup sap gathering was a lot of work, and it was almost always done by the women of the tribe. There are many legends about how Natives discovered the process but nobody really knows for sure. Red and silver maples as well as sugar maples were tapped. So were hickory, box elder and birch, though in those trees the sap was less sweet.

I’ve read about mallards migrating and some articles say they do and others say they don’t, so I’m not sure if this photo is a true sign of spring but I saw these two dancing on the ice at a local swamp, most likely hoping for it to hurry up and melt like the rest of us. I thought it was a pretty, spring like scene.

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep. ~Rumi

Thanks for coming by.

 

 

 

 

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