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Posts Tagged ‘Swanzey New Hampshire’

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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I know this photo of Mount Monadnock doesn’t look very spring like but we got a dusting of snow Friday and I wanted to see how much fell in other places. They got about 3-4 inches in Troy where this was taken, but I’d guess there is a lot more up there on the mountain. I climbed it in April once and in places the snow was almost over my head. It was a foolish thing to do; I got soaked to the skin.

In lower altitudes flowers were blooming in spite of it being a cold day and I finally found some coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara.) The flowers on coltsfoot plants come up before the leaves show so there is no hint of when it will appear. You have to remember where you’ve seen it last year and revisit the places the following spring. This was taken last Saturday and I’m guessing that there are a lot more blooming now, so I’ve got to get back there and see. 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.

The male catkins of American hazelnut (Corylus americana) have lengthened and turned golden, and that’s a sure sign that they’re almost ready to release their pollen.

It wouldn’t make sense for the male hazelnut catkins to release their pollen unless the female blossoms were ready to receive it, so when I see the male catkins looking like those in the previous photo I start looking for the female blossoms, like those pictured here. If pollinated successfully each thread like crimson stigma will become a hazelnut.

Female American hazelnut flowers are among the smallest flowers that I try to photograph but size doesn’t always come through in a photo, so I clipped a paperclip to the branch to give you an idea of scale. That isn’t a giant paperclip; it’s the standard size, so you have to look carefully for these tiny blooms. Male catkins and female flowers will usually be on the same bush. Though the shrubs that I see aren’t much more than 5-6 feet tall I just read that they can reach 16 feet under ideal conditions. The ones I see grow along the edges of roads and rail trails and are regularly cut down. In fact I had a hard time finding any this year. I went to one spot near powerlines and found that hundreds of them had been cut.

A week ago I saw 2 dandelion blossoms. This week I saw too many to count and some had insects on them, so it looks like we’ll have a good seed crop before too long.

Each stalked brownish-purple bud scale on a male speckled alder catkin (Alnus incana) opens in spring to reveal three male flowers beneath, each with a lobed calyx cup and three to five stamens with anthers covered in yellow pollen. The flower parts are clearly visible in this photo but even though it is heavily cropped they are still tiny. The entire catkin is only about 2 ½ inches long.

Just like with the male American hazelnut catkins we saw earlier, when I see the male catkins open on alders I start looking for the female flowers. In this photo the tiny scarlet female stigmas poke out from under the bud scales on all sides of the catkin. The whitish material is the “glue” the plant produces to seal each shingle like bud scale against the wet and cold winter weather. If water got under the bud scale and froze it would kill the female blossoms. When pollinated each thread like female stigma will become a small cone like seed pod (strobile) that I think most of us are used to seeing on alders. These female flowers aren’t much bigger than the female hazelnut flowers we saw earlier so you need good eyes. Or good glasses.

Red elderberry buds (Sambucus racemosa) often break quite early as this one has, and they often pay for it by being frostbitten. But, though it was 18 degrees F. the night before and this one had ice on it, it looked fine. Each small opening leaf looked great all the way to the tip with no damage.

Many of the red maple (Acer rubrum) female blossoms in this area are fully opened now, so from here on it’s all about seed production. I’m looking forward to seeing their beautiful red samaras. The male blossoms have dried and will simply fall from the trees once they have shed their pollen. Sugar maple buds haven’t opened yet that I’ve seen.

At a glance the buds of striped maple (Acer pennsylvanicum) don’t look like they’ve changed much since January, but you have to look a little closer to see what’s going on.

Once you turn the buds of striped maple sideways you can see that the bud scales have come apart, revealing the bud inside. These pink and orange fuzzy buds will be some of the most beautiful things in the forest in a while and I’d hate to miss them. That’s why I check them at least weekly, starting about now. These buds illustrate perfectly why you have to be willing to touch things in nature and bend or turn them whenever possible so you can see all sides, otherwise you can miss a lot of beauty.  When I take photos I try to get shots of all sides, and even under the caps of mushrooms when possible. Most of them are never seen by anyone but me but I can choose the best ones to show you.

From a distance I couldn’t see any yellow flowers on the willows but my camera’s zoom showed me that there were plenty of them. It was one of those sun one minute and clouds the next kind of days, with a blowing wind.

The bees will be very happy to see these blossoms, which are some of our earliest to appear. Willow bark contains salicin, a compound found in aspirin, and willows have been used to relieve pain for thousands of years.

Last week the tiny white flowers of what I think are hairy bittercress plants (Cardamine hirsuta) were ground hugging, but this week they stood up on 4 inch tall stalks. That’s a lot of growth in a week. I’ve read that the seed pods are explosive, so having them as high up as possible makes perfect sense.

Out of a bed of probably 50 hyacinths a single one is about to bloom. Most have buds that have just appeared and aren’t even showing color yet, but this one just doesn’t want to wait. I hope it knows what it’s doing. It’s still getting down into the teens at night.

The daffodil bud that I saw last week and thought would be open this week was not, but it had a visitor. Some type of fly I think, but I’m not very good with insects. It’s not a great photo but it does show that there are indeed insects active. I also saw a hoverfly but I haven’t seen a bee yet.

In spite of it being a sunny day all the crocuses had closed up shop but the reticulated irises (Iris reticulata) were still open for business. They’re beautiful little things.

The tiny ground ivy flowers (Glechoma hederacea) are still showing on a single plant that is surrounded by hundreds of other plants that aren’t blooming. It’s clearly working harder than the others. It must have had ten blossoms on it.

So the story from here is that though spring is happening winter hangs on as well. The last snowstorm dusted my yard with snow that looked like confectioner’s sugar and it melted overnight, but just a few miles north at Beaver Brook the hillsides got considerably more. Chances are it is still there too, because it has been cool. Sooner or later it’s bound to warm up and stay the way. The weather people say there’s a chance we might see 50 degrees today and 70 degrees by Saturday. We’re all hoping they’ve got it right.

The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day.

~Robert Frost

Thanks for coming by.

 

 

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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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I saw a dandelion in full bloom Saturday even though it was a chilly, blustery day. Call it a weed if you will but to me it was as beautiful as any orchid and I was very happy to see it. Oddly enough though I went looking for coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara,) which is a dandelion look alike that blooms in very early spring, I didn’t find a single one.

Actually I saw a dandelion and a half. I can’t explain the half.

I’ve been watching the American hazelnut catkins (Corylus americana) closely and have finally seen some signs of life in them. In winter they are short and stiff, but as they move into spring they lengthen and become more flexible and blow about in the wind. Since hazels are wind pollinated this is all part of The Plan.

Male hazelnut catkins (and most catkins) are really just a long flower head. The bud scales can be clearly seen in this photo as they spiral around the center stalk of the catkin. Under each bud scale is a male flower loaded with pollen ready to be released to the wind, but for the bud scales to open they have to make room by pulling apart, and this is how the catkins sometimes double in length. As they pull apart and open they also change color and become golden, and that’s because we see the golden pollen rather than the bud scales. The bud scales, I’ve noticed, have just began to pull apart and that’s my signal to begin looking for the tiny crimson, thread like female flowers. It won’t be long now.

This shot of a Cornelian cherry bud (Cornus mas) shows maybe an easier to understand example of how bud scales pull apart to reveal the flower buds they’ve been protecting all winter. The same thing happens on the hazel catkins, but in a slightly different way. Cornelian cherry is in the dogwood family. Its common name comes from its small tart, cherry red fruit which man has eaten for thousands of years, especially in Mediterranean regions. It is one of our earliest blooming shrubs, but the buds are opening slowly this year.

My biggest surprise on this day was finding ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) in bloom because I’ve never seen them bloom so early; they usually bloom in May. This wasn’t just a one flower fluke; there were a few blossoms in a sunny spot on a lawn and they were another example of how topsy turvy this year has been. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen dandelions and ground ivy bloom before spring bulbs, but the bulbs seem to be very stubborn this year. Even the reticulated iris and snow drops which are often the first flowers seen, are barely out of the ground.

You might think that this little flower is calling to insects that aren’t there but I’ve seen a surprising number of them out and about, in spite of the cold.

The daffodils are coming up by the hundreds, but I haven’t seen a single blossom yet

These are the daffodils that I was sure would be blooming on this day but they decided against it, and that was probably a good thing because nights are still falling into the 20s.

This photo of a mallard in ice shows how cold it has been but the thin ice along the river banks didn’t seem to matter to the ducks; they just kept on feeding. I also saw a great blue heron but didn’t get a photo of it.

I was hoping to show you at least one photo of a robin but though I’ve searched for days I haven’t seen a single one, so these tracks will have to do. Were they made by a robin? I have no idea but I found them in a known robin hangout. One day several years ago I was admiring some red maple buds in this spot and a male robin flew right down beside me and began kicking and scratching up leaves while looking right into my eyes and giving me a severe stare the whole time. I’m not sure what it was all about but we parted on good terms, I think.

I admired these red maple buds (Acer rubrum) again just as I had on the day of the robin years ago. The female blossoms had opened and were showing their sticky scarlet stigmas. These tiny flowers look a lot like American hazelnut female flowers, but hazelnut blooms are much smaller. Before long the forests will be a sea of scarlet haze for just a short time, so I have to make plans to climb soon.

Red maple trees can be male or female, or sometimes have both sexes on one tree as this one did. On this day the male flowers had also appeared and were loaded with pollen, as can be seen in this photo. The male flower stamens are actually pinkish red but the abundance of pollen makes them appear yellow green. If the wind does its job before too long each female blossom will become the winged seed pod (samara) that I think we’re probably all familiar with.

Here’s a closer look at the male stamens there in the lower right center, just poking out of the bud scales and as yet pollen free.

I’m guessing that the return to winter in March has extended the maple sugaring season, but the red maples beginning to flower signal the end is near. When the trees begin to blossom the sap can get bitter, but red maples bloom before others. I’ll have to look at some sugar maple buds and see if they’re opening too.

The buds of another member of the maple family, box elder, haven’t seemed to respond to spring just yet. The buds didn’t seem to be doing much but that was okay because I like to look at them for their beautiful whitish blue color. The color is caused by tiny wax crystals, there to reflect and protect the new twigs from harsh sunlight until they toughen up. At that stage they will be reddish. The waxy, dusty coloration rubs right off like it does on grapes, plums, and other fruits. Box elder (Acer negundo) has a special place in my heart because it was the first tree I ever planted. I must have been about 8-10 years old when I pulled a three foot seedling up by the roots at my grandmother’s house and stuffed it into a hole at my father’s house. It grew like there was no tomorrow and shaded the front porch perfectly, which of course was what I had planned all along. Why I was thinking of such things at such a young age is beyond me but there you go; sometimes we just have this inborn itch.

I don’t have any real history with magnolias because nobody in my family ever grew one, but I’ve always loved them just the same, especially the fragrant ones. The bud scales on magnolias are made up of a single furry cap with a seam, and on this example the bud scale edges were beginning to curl. This is a sign that the flower bud inside is swelling and pushing the bud scale off, so it shouldn’t be too long before we see these beautiful flowers again. I hope they don’t blossom too early though; the flower petals often get frost burned and turn brown.

The story of the ugly duckling always comes to mind when I look at shagbark hickory buds (Carya ovata) at this time of year and that’s because most people would probably wonder why I would even bother to take the time to photograph something as plain as this. I do it because these buds have a beautiful secret and I want to be sure I know when it will be revealed so I don’t miss it.

The “it” that I don’t want to miss is the breaking of shagbark hickory buds, because for a short time in mid-May they are one of the most beautiful things to be seen in the forest. I sometimes have to remind myself to breathe when I stumble upon a tree full of them because it’s a sight so beautiful it can take your breath away. This is just one reason of many why spring is my favorite season; the anticipation that comes from knowing that I’m living so close to seeing something so beautiful. “Any day now,” I tell myself as the excitement builds.

If a tiny bud dares unfold to a wakening new world, if a narrow blade of grass dares to poke its head up from an unlit earth, then surely I can rise and stretch my winter weary bones, surely I can set my face to the spring sun. Surely, I too can be reborn. ~Toni Sorenson

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There is nothing special about this photo of a swamp, other than to mark the place where I heard the first red winged blackbird of this year. I haven’t seen any but I’ve heard them and that’s another sign of spring.

I hope the red winged blackbirds know what they’re doing because this frozen pond is right across the road from the thawed swamp in the previous photo. Our nighttime temperatures are still falling below freezing but I hear the birds each morning.

Half Moon Pond in Hancock certainly didn’t look very spring like after one of our many recent nor’easters. Before this cold came in March it looked like the ice would be gone in less than another week.

The wind blows strongly off Half Moon Pond almost all of the time, and this lake sedge (Carex lacustris) shows the direction. This sedge grows in large colonies near lakes, ponds, and wetlands and is native to Canada and the northern U.S. It is a pleasant shade of green in summer and can sometimes be the dominant plant along shorelines and in swamps. Waterfowl and songbirds eat its seeds.

When I saw a mullein seedling (Verbascum thapsus) I realized that I had never seen another one, most likely because I wasn’t paying attention. It was every bit as wooly as its adult counterparts and ready to start photosynthesizing. Mullein is a biennial that flowers and dies in its second year. This one was about the size of a baseball, or just over 9 inches.

I went to see my old friends the striped wintergreens (Chimaphila maculata) to see how they came through the winter and I was happy to see that they looked good and healthy. This is a plant I don’t see that often and I only know of three or four small colonies. Hopefully they will bloom and set seed in mid-July.

Trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens) grows near the striped wintergreens and also came through the winter looking well. This plant always reminds me of my grandmother because it was one of her favorites. The plant is also called mayflower and was once nearly collected into oblivion so the very fragrant blossoms could be used in nosegays, but it is now protected in many states. It relies heavily on a relationship with certain fungi mycelium in the soil and it absolutely refuses to grow anywhere that the mycelium isn’t present. Native Americans used to use the plant medicinally to break up kidney stones. It was so valuable to them that it was thought to have divine origins.

The basal leaves of hawkweed (and many other plants) often turn deep purple in winter. Many trees and other plants conserve a lot of energy if they don’t have to make  chlorophyll so in the fall many stop making it. When that happens other colors which were there all along start to show. Carotenoids make leaves orange and yellow and anthocyanins make them red, pink or purple. Anthocyanins can also protect leaves from getting sunburned in winter if they are evergreen.

Beaked willow gall is caused by a tiny midge laying its egg in a willow bud. The reddish galls usually form at branch tips in the fall and will house the fly larva all winter. It will eat the tissue in the gall until spring, when it will pupate and an adult midge will emerge. Winter is a great time to look for galls, which are often hidden behind leaves at other times of year.

I’m always amazed by how much red there is in highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) and nothing shows it better than the witch’s brooms that are so common on these shrubs. On blueberries witch’s brooms are cause by a fungus that deforms branches or roots and causes a dense mass of shoots to grow from a single point. In my experience they don’t really harm the plant and can even be quite pretty with snow on them.

An old trick that gardeners sometimes use when they want to grow plants that aren’t hardy in their area is to plant the sensitive plats near a stone or brick wall. The mass of masonry absorbs the warmth of the sun during the day and releases it slowly at night, protecting the plants from frost damage. Sweet gum trees grow near such a sunlit wall at the local college and the above photo is of one of their seed pods (Liquidambar styraciflua.) Seeing these pods here seems very strange because sweet gum is thought of as a “southern tree,” and Massachusetts is the northern most point that it grows naturally. I never saw the seed pods as a boy but I wish I had because they’re interesting and hold their shape well when dried. They would have made a great addition to my collection of natural oddities.

The base of this eastern hemlock tree (Tsuga canadensis) was covered by what I think must be yellow green algae (Pleurococcus vulgaris.) These algae grow on the shaded sides of tree trunks, on soil, stones and even on walls. Their closest relatives are said to grow in lakes and rivers, but these species can withstand some dryness. Fossil evidence shows that algae have existed for at least 540 million years.

A saw another hemlock that had a deep crack in its bark that ran straight and true from the ground to about 15 feet up. At first I thought it must be a frost crack but I’ve never seen one so long, so I’m guessing it must have been a lightning strike. Since it was an older wound there were no pieces of bark that might have been blown off lying around. I came upon a tree once that had been recently struck by lightning and there were strips of bark all over the ground. No matter how the crack was made I’m sure it made quite a loud noise when it happened.  On cold winter nights you can sometimes hear stressed trees cracking in the forest. It is sudden and sounds like a rifle shot.

The bud scales on many of the male alder catkins have gone from their deep winter purple to shades of pink, orange, red and brown. Soon the bud scales will open to reveal the yellow green flowers that will release the pollen to the wind. They become very beautiful at this time of year and sometimes when the light is right it looks like someone has strung ropes of multicolored jewels on all the bushes.

Boxwood (Buxus) is called man’s oldest garden ornamental because it has been used for hedges and specimen plantings for centuries. The early settlers thought so highly of it they brought it with them in the mid-1600s. The first plants were brought over from Amsterdam and were planted in about 1653 on Long Island in New York. There are about 90 species of boxwood and many make excellent hedges. These examples I found in a local park were budded. They’ll bloom In late April or early May but so will many other flowers, so these small but pretty ones will probably be overlooked.

The willows seem to be in a holding pattern. They’ve had their fuzzy gray catkins for two weeks now but there are no signs of the bright yellow flowers yet. Maybe I’ll see some later today.

I was flabbergasted when I saw the vernal witch hazels (Hamamelis vernalis) still blossoming. They’ve been through three nor’easters and zero degree cold but there are at least five bushes still full of flowers, so I’d say they were well worth what it cost to buy them. I wish you could smell them. I’ve heard their scent compared to laundry taken in fresh from the line but another description I just read says a hint of citrus-maybe lemon-is there as well. They seem a bit spicy to me but it’s a very pleasant scent that you can smell from quite a distance.

It’s always nice to see budded daffodils in spring. These were coming along well in spite of the zero degree cold we’ve had. They grow near the brick wall of a building and I think the heat radiating off the wall keeps them warm at night, just like the sweet gum trees we heard about earlier.

Not all the daffodils were lucky enough to have a brick wall, and this is what happened to many of those that didn’t. This is the second year in a row that this has happened to these bulbs and I’m not sure if they’ll make it now. A bulb needs leaves to photosynthesize and build up the strength it needs to blossom the following year. With their first spring leaves dying off for two years now I doubt they have much strength left. If they were mine I’d dig and replace them with later blossoming bulbs. They’re a bit overanxious I think.

Sometimes sunlight on moss is really all I need. I pity those who spend their lives chasing after riches, all the while missing the incredible richness all around them.

People don’t notice whether it’s winter or summer when they’re happy. ~Anton Chekhov

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The word “Ashuelot” is pronounced Ash-will-ot if you’re from this area or Ash-wee-lot if you’re from away. The word is a Native American one meaning “collection of many waters.” For years I read that the word meant “the place between” but that didn’t make a lot of sense. “A collection of many waters” makes much more sense because that’s exactly what the river is. Wandering the banks of the Ashuelot is something I’ve done since I was too young to even retain the memory of doing so, and I do it often. On this day I was happy to see that the ice shelves had melted and the sandy / stony shoreline was back. The river has been very high for over a month and it’s good to see it finally ready to absorb the next big rain storm, which should come sometime in April unless that month has gone haywire too.

I stopped to admire some ice formations and take some photos so I wouldn’t have to try and explain how cold it was. Actually it wasn’t bad in the sunshine when the wind wasn’t blowing but it was blowing almost constantly along this stretch of river, so it was a day to be wrapped up like you would be in January.

The ice had formed discs on every twig that was in the water and this was remarkable only because the ever splashing water usually forms icy tear drop shapes on the twigs. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever seen these disc shapes here before.

Here is what I’m more used to seeing. Ice baubles I call them, but there weren’t many to be seen. They happen because of the way the current makes the water constantly rise and fall along the shoreline, so one second the twig is in the cold air and the next it’s under water. The runoff freezes and layer by layer and an ice bauble is made. It reminds me of dipping a wick in melted wax over and over again to make a candle.

This is where I come to practice my wave catching skills but there were none to catch on this day because the water was too low. It has to be at just the right height for good waves to form. Too low or too high and there are no waves. I took some photos anyway though, because the water looked like satin as it poured over the unseen stones that cause the waves.

Oak leaves huddled together as if to warm each other in the chilly breeze. I love the warm, orangey brown color of last year’s oak leaves, but I won’t be sorry to see them finally fall.

The oak buds seemed to be swelling a bit but it was hard to know. Oaks are one of our latest trees to leaf out in spring.

I saw a chubby little bird in a bush which looked like it was hoping I wouldn’t see it. I think it was a dark eyed junco but I’m not 100% sure of that. I see these small dark colored birds feeding in flocks along roadsides where the snow has melted away from the pavement , exposing the soil and grass. I’ve read that dark eyed juncos come here as winter sets in and leave in spring, so they must like the cold. There are said to be about 630 million of them from Alaska to Mexico, and all across the U.S. from coast to coast.

I wondered if the juncos were eating the sumac seeds so I had to look it up. Apparently they eat smaller seeds like those of grasses, lamb’s quarters and the like, and in warmer months they also eat insects. Robins, blue jays, grosbeaks, ruffed grouse, cardinals and other larger birds eat the sumac fruit, but it never disappears here until spring.

I went to visit the Ashuelot Falls on West Street in Keene. I used to fish here quite often when I was a boy but back then the river wasn’t as clean as it is now so I didn’t catch that many fish. An occasional perch or dace was about it but that was fine, because my being here really didn’t have much to do with catching fish anyway. I’d let a forked stick hold my pole while I explored the river bank. Now they catch trout here, I’m told.

I wouldn’t have been surprised to see ice pancakes in January but this was March, so I was surprised.

Ice pancakes form when the river foam stirred up by falls or other turbulence comes together into a misshapen lump. As the current moves the misshapen lumps they bump and jostle each other until all the rough edges are shaved off and they’ve become round like a pancake. Then they begin to freeze and their edges build up into rims.

Here is what an ice pancake looks like when it starts life, before its friends smooth out all those angles.

Canada geese waded in the shallows. More and more of them are returning to nest and raise their young in the reed beds along the river. There is always one lookout standing tall while the others preen, sleep, or eat and they count on their lookout to sound the alarm. I wondered if most of these birds even knew I was there.

My pointing the camera at them was too much for one or two of the geese and they swam off quickly.

Normally a river gets deeper as you go toward its middle but a sandbar has grown here, so the water in the middle is quite shallow. Not good for navigation but the geese know they can stand here rather than swim and they take advantage of being able to rest while still in the water. The shading from dark to lighter brown in this photo shows where the sandbar is.

A maple tree had been pecked full of holes by an unseen woodpecker.

I didn’t have to see this woodpecker to know it was a pileated woodpecker, which is our biggest. Its holes are large and almost always rectangular. All of the holes in the previous photo would fit inside this one with plenty of room to spare.

The hole in this old red maple (Acer rubrum) was the biggest of all but I doubt very much that it was made by a bird or an animal. I think the river has washed the soil out from under it.

The hole was plenty big and roomy enough for me to comfortably sit in, almost like a hobbit.

I knew the old tree was a red maple by its buds. The bud scales in many of these examples had pulled back to reveal the many pinkish flowers inside. Those over on the left were even protruding a bit from the bud, but it was still too early to tell if they were male or female blossoms. It’s a good thing they hadn’t fully opened because the temperature fell to zero degrees on this night. The cold isn’t going to leave quickly this year but today is the first full day of spring, even if it doesn’t seem it.

I was born upon thy bank, river,
My blood flows in thy stream,
And thou meanderest forever,
At the bottom of my dream.
~Henry David Thoreau

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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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