Posts Tagged ‘Vernal Witch hazel’

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

Thanks for coming by.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for coming by.


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February has shown us what a strange month it can be once again. After snow and cold in the first half of the month the temperatures suddenly shot up into the high sixties for the second half. This photo shows what happens when warm air meets the cold ice of a pond: fog; sometimes very heavy fog, as this was. On Saturday morning February 26th at 7:00 am it was close to sixty degrees and then warm enough to wear just a tee shirt by noon, which is just about unheard of in February in New Hampshire. By 8:00 pm they were saying we might see thunderstorms.


The ice at a local skating pond became too thin to skate on but this has really been a problem throughout the state all winter, with many people falling through the ice this year. It never really got cold enough to form the kind of ice that is thick enough for vehicles to drive on and pickup trucks and many snowmobiles have gone through the ice, in some instances with fatal results.


Unfortunately not all of the ice was thin enough to melt. The warmth melted most of the snow quickly enough to cause a flood watch to go into effect but as this photo shows, when hard packed snow melts it can turn to ice. This trail was icy in spots and completely bare in others.


What a welcome break the record breaking warmth was from the cold winds and deep snow. The skunk cabbages responded by sending up their flower spathes. Skunk cabbages can fool you into thinking they’re growing when you see the green sheath on the left, but it covers the leaf buds and appear in the fall. Only the mottled maroon and yellow flower spathe on the right shows new spring growth.


Some flower spathes can show more yellow than maroon as this one does. Bears that come out of hibernation too soon will sometimes eat skunk cabbage. There is little else for them at this time of year.


Why am I showing you mud? Because here in New Hampshire we have an unofficial 5th season called mud season. When the frost is 3 or 4 deep in the ground and the top two feet of a road thaws the melt water is sitting on frozen ground and has nowhere to go, and this results in a car swallowing quagmire that acts almost like quicksand. Those who live on unpaved roads have quite a time of it every year. The mud can sometimes be as much as 12-16 inches deep but I haven’t seen it that bad here yet this year. Quite often the mud gets bad enough to close unpaved roads and the logging and over the road shipping industries virtually grind to a halt until things dry out. Mud season has come early this year, so if you need a load of sand, gravel, loam, building materials or other such things you should be prepared to wait until April or May.


I’ve seen dandelions blooming in January but that was during an extremely warm winter when the temperature barely fell below freezing. I’ve never seen one bloom this early after a winter like the one we’ve had. To say that I was surprised would be an understatement.


Tiny white flowers bloomed in a lawn. They were so small that three or four of them could have been hidden behind a pea, so I had to kneel in the muddy grass to get a photo of them. I think it belongs to the cress family, which is large with many plants that look alike. It might be spring cress (Cardamine bulbosa,) but I’m really not sure.


These crocus blossoms were a real surprise because I’ve been checking crocus beds and have only seen the leaf tips poking out in all but this bed. I’ve also seen tulips leaves just out of the ground. They might be rushing things a bit.


Last year these daffodils came up too early and got badly frost bitten. I fear that they’re repeating the same mistake this year, because we’ve gone from the 60s back down to the 30s now.


Huge swaths of forest bleed with a red haze from red maple buds (Acer rubrum) each spring and it’s starting to happen now.  I’ve tried to get photos of it from above and below, but so far I haven’t had any luck.


The bud scales on red maple buds can be deep purple in winter, but when it warms up in spring the scales pull back to reveal the tomato red buds they’ve been protecting, and that’s what causes the red haze seen on our forested hillsides. Seeing what must be millions of them together is a spring sight not soon forgotten.


I told myself I was on a fool’s errand the day I went to see if the pussy willow catkins were showing, but there they were. The single bud scales of what I think is the American pussy willow (Salix discolor) open in late winter to reveal the fuzzy gray male catkins. As these flowers age yellow stamens will appear and will begin releasing pollen. The bees will be buzzing at about that time and they will further cross pollinate the many willow varieties. Henry David Thoreau once said “The more I study willows, the more I am confused,” and I have to agree.


The Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates wrote about the medicinal properties of willow in the fifth century BC, and Native Americans across North America used the plants medicinally for pain relief for many thousands of years. Finally in 1829 scientists discovered that a compound in the bark of willows called salicin was what relieved pain. Chemically, salicin resembles aspirin.


I was surprised to see the spring (Vernal) witch hazel blooming so early. Though we do have a native vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis), it doesn’t grow naturally this far north, and since this one is in a park I’m betting it’s one of the cultivated witch hazels, so maybe it has been bred for early blooms. The other American witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) that is native to New England blooms in the fall and grows in the same park.

The Native American Mohegan tribes are believed to have been the first to show English settlers how to use Y-shaped witch hazel sticks for dowsing, an ancient method of finding underground water. Settlers all across the country used this method to find water and it was successful enough to be exported back to Europe. Its twigs are still used by dowsers in the same way today.


The Native American Osage tribe used witch hazel bark to treat skin ulcers and sores and my father always kept a bottle of witch hazel ointment for his hands. Many people have most likely used witch hazel without even realizing it; it’s a chief ingredient of Preparation H. Studies have found active compounds in witch hazel such as flavonoids, tannins (hamamelitannin and proanthocyanidins), and volatile oils that give it astringent action to stop bleeding.


Witch hazel blossoms are pollinated by owlet moths, which are active in winter and are called winter moths. These moths raise their body temperature by shivering. Their temperature can rise as much as 50 degrees and this allows them to fly and search for food when it’s cold.  I think these blossoms were ready for a visit from them.


I have to say that I’m not a fan of orange witch hazel blossoms because they aren’t as bright and cheery as the yellow ones, but when it comes to fragrance the orange flowers beat the yellow hands down. I know a spot on the local college grounds where several large orange flowered shrubs grow and on this day all I had to do was follow my nose, because their clean spicy fragrance could be detected from two blocks away. Someone said the fragrance was like that of clean laundry just off the line, but I think it’s even better than that, especially after a long winter. One shrub still had a nursery tag still on it that read “Hamamelis vernalis,” so they are our native vernal witch hazels. Odd that they don’t grow naturally this far north. They seem to do well here; these examples must be 10 feet tall. If I were planting witch hazels I’d mix the yellow and orange flowered varieties; one for cheer and one for fragrance.


The paper thin white puddle ice that makes that strange tinkling sound when it’s broken always takes me back to my boyhood. Seeing this ice on puddles after a long winter meant that spring was here and though nights still got cold and icy, the days were warm and muddy. My spirits used to soar at the thought of spring when I was a boy and that’s something I’ve carried with me all of my life. The difference is now I look at the ice instead of breaking it to hear it tinkle, because I can see so much in it. The waves that formed it, bubbles and birds flying, mountains, distant suns, space and time; all are there for the seeing, but few take the time to look.


As I write this last entry the thermometer reads 34 degrees, so our week long flirtation with high spring has ended. The dandelion blossom has probably been frost bitten and the witch hazels have most likely stored away their petals for another warm day, but 34 degrees is above freezing and that’s what maple syrup producers want. Days above freezing and nights below freezing get the tree sap flowing  and the sap buckets have been hung, so there’s no turning back now. True spring must surely be right around the corner.

It’s spring fever, that’s what the name of it is. And when you’ve got it, you want — oh, you don’t quite know what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so! ~Mark Twain

Thanks for coming by. Happy March first!

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1. Stream IceWinter made a strong comeback last week with daytime temperatures barely reaching the 20s and nights near zero, so everything froze up again. The weather can often change dramatically and quickly in New England and this winter has certainly done its best to prove it; today we might see 70 degrees.

2. Stuck Log

A tree got stuck on the Ashuelot River dam and the spray grew into long icicles.

3. Canada Geese

The Canada geese drew me over to the river with their loud honking. Several of them seemed to be looking for something and honked back and forth as they swam and walked the shore. Could they be looking for nesting sites, I wonder? I’ve also seen many flocks flying overhead lately.

4. Canada Geese Flying

I must have spooked them because all of the sudden several of them flew up river, letting me get the first fuzzy shot of a bird in flight to ever appear on this blog.

5. Ice in Bushes

Ice high on the branches of the bushes told the story of the drop in water level. I’d guess it must have been at least 5 feet from the surface of the water.

6. Witch Hazel

The yellow vernal witch hazel that grows in the park by the river was blooming heavily. What a change from the last time I was here when there wasn’t a flower to be seen on it.

7. Witch Hazel

If there is a color combination more pleasing than yellow and blue, I can’t think of what it would be. When I see this shade of yellow I think of daffodil, dandelion, and Forsythia blossoms.

8. Cornelian Cherry

Since Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) doesn’t bloom until mid-April I was surprised to see that its bud scales had opened to reveal a glimpse of its yellow buds. Cornelian cherry is in the dogwood family and is our earliest blooming member of that family, often blooming at just about the same time as forsythias do. The small yellow flowers will produce fruit that resembles a red olive and which will mature in the fall. It is very sour but high in vitamin C and has been used for at least 7000 years for both food and medicine. In northern Greece early Neolithic people left behind remains of meals that included Cornelian cherry, and the Persians and early Romans also knew it well.

9. Box Buds

Box shrubs (Buxus) were showing white flower buds in their leaf axils. They will open into small greenish yellow flowers soon. The flowers are very fragrant and attract a lot of bees. These small leaved, easy to trim shrubs are usually used ornamentally, often in hedges. Only the European and some Asian species are frost hardy and evergreen, so any examples seen here in New Hampshire are from those parts of the world. Box is another plant that has been used by man since ancient times; it was used for hedges in Egypt as early as 4000 BC.  Some species of box can live as long as 600 years.

10. Swamp

I made my way to a beaver pond to see if the beavers were awake yet, but the only sign of activity was a woodpecker drumming on a distant tree.

11. Beaver Lodge

Skunks have come out of hibernation and chipmunks are once again scampering along the stone walls so I’m sure the beavers must be awake, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at their lodge. They might have abandoned this area.

12. Heron Nest

We had some ferocious winds one day that blew to near 50 miles per hour but the great blue heron nest stayed in the dead tree in the beaver swamp. It looks like it might need some tidying up, but it held.

13. Hole Under Tree

I found what was left of a wild turkey here last year and I wondered if a bobcat had gotten it. I didn’t see this hole under a tree then, but it looked to be the perfect place for a bobcat den. That could explain the lack of chipmunks in this place. Bobcats are doing well in New Hampshire and there is now a debate raging here about whether or not there should be a bobcat hunting season. They do a lot of good in the way of rodent population control and I say let them be. Though they can rarely reach 60 pounds in weight most aren’t a lot bigger than a house cat and are rarely seen. After having a few run ins with feral house cats over the years I know that I wouldn’t want to tangle with a bobcat, no matter what it weighed.

14. Stilted Golden Birch

Sometimes if a stump or log has decayed enough tree seeds can grow on them. In this photo a golden birch (Betula alleghaniensis) grew on a log that has since mostly rotted away, leaving the birch to look as if it’s standing on stilts. From what I’ve seen any type of tree will do this.

15. Hellebore Buds

The pale shoots of hellebore (Helleborus) were nestled under last season’s leaves. Once they grow up into the sun they’ll become deep green but for now they are blanched white. A common name for hellebore is Lenten rose because it blooms very early; often during lent. This year lent ends on March 24th, so this plant has some fast growing to do if it’s going to live up to the name.

16. Skunk Cabbage

The curvy, splotchy spathes of the skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) flowers have come up fully now but the foliage shoots are just sitting and waiting for the right time. Once they’ve started they will grow quickly and the leaves will hide what we see here.

17. Skunk Cabbage Swamp

The swamp where the skunk cabbages grow looked like it was frozen solid but with all the thin ice warnings this winter I didn’t want to try my luck. There’s nothing quite like a boot full of ice water.

18. Pussy Willow

The pussy willows have gotten bigger since the last time I saw them. I love their beautiful bright yellow flowers and I’m looking forward to seeing them again soon. They’re among the earliest to bloom.

19. Red Maple Buds

Red maples (Acer rubrum) protect their buds with as many as four pairs of rounded, hairy edged bud scales. The scales are often plum purple and the bud inside tomato red. If you see more red than purple on the buds that’s a sign that they’ve began to swell. Red maple is one of the first of our native trees to blossom in spring and also one of the most beautiful, in my opinion. Each small bud holds as many as 6-8 red blossoms. Red maple trees can be strictly male or female, or can have both male and female blossoms on a single tree. They bloom before the leaves appear and large groves of them can color the landscape with a brilliant red haze.

20. Maple Sap

The drop of maple sap on the end of the spile shows that the trees are coming out of dormancy and growing again. A spile is the metal or wooden peg which is hammered into the hole made in the tree and it directs the sap into the sap bucket that hangs from it. Flowing sap means that the tree is taking up water through its roots and that means that the ground has thawed, so it won’t be long now.

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

Thanks for coming by.

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1. Ashuelot

Last Saturday we were blessed with wall to wall sunshine and a warm breeze out of the southwest that nudged the thermometer up towards 50 degrees. Even though it isn’t spring it was the perfect spring day, so I went off to see if nature was stirring. A week ago we had below zero cold and this stretch of the Ashuelot River in Swanzey had frozen nearly from bank to bank. As I stood looking out at the river on this day with a warm breeze in my face I wondered if I had dreamed the ice and dangerous cold of just seven days ago, so amazing was the difference.

2. Ice

There were still some slabs of ice on the river but they were melting quickly in the warn sunshine.

3. Frozen Stream

Even in the shade of the forest ice was melting, and how the birds did sing!

4. Maple with Sunglasses

Even the trees seemed to be in a spring time frame of mind.

5. Daffodils

I stopped by a local park and saw daffodils out of the ground everywhere I looked.

6. Orange Witch Hazel

I also saw some orange vernal witch hazel that was in full bloom. I’m not sure of its name but it was very fragrant and you could smell its fresh clean scent on the breeze. Someone once described witch hazel as smelling like clean laundry that has just been taken down from the clothesline, and I’d say that’s a fair description. After a long winter such a scent can seem like a small piece of heaven, right here on earth.

7. Yellow Witch Hazel

I hoped to see some yellow witch hazel flowers and I did see some color, but like a swimmer dipping his toe into a cold pond it hesitated, and just couldn’t seem to make up its mind.

8. Island

Speaking of cold ponds; there was still ice on Wilson Pond in Swanzey but it too was melting fast. This is the first winter I can remember when ice fisherman’s huts didn’t dot our lakes and ponds, but this year the ice just never grew thick enough to be safe. If we still lived in the days before refrigeration when ice was harvested from ponds for ice houses and ice boxes, we’d be seeing a meager harvest indeed. Food preservation would be on everyone’s mind right about now, I would think.

9. Skunk Cabbage Swamp

I also visited one of my favorite places to explore in the spring, and that’s the swamp where the skunk cabbages grow.

10. Skunk Cabbage

It seems like I always have to re-train my eyes in spring so it took me a while to find any skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus.) I finally saw this small blue-gray finger poking up out of the snow, which told me that the plants were up. I also stepped on a couple of plants that I didn’t see and they released their scent so I’d know what I had done. It isn’t as overpowering as actual skunk spray but it runs a close second.

11. Skunk Cabbage

The soil of the swamp felt frozen to walk on but even so before long I started seeing skunk cabbages everywhere. They don’t mind frozen soil because they produce their own heat through a process called thermogenesis, and can melt their way even through solid ice. Skunk cabbage is in the arum family and like most arums, inside the spathe is the spadix, which in the case of skunk cabbage is a one inch round, often pink or yellow stalked flower head from which the small flowers emerge. The flowers don’t have petals but do have four yellowish sepals. You can just get a glimpse of them in this photo in the darkest area of the spathe. This is the spathe’s slit-like opening and is the way flies get to the flower’s pollen. The pointed green shoot on the left will become the plant’s foliage.

12. Barberry Berries

I didn’t have any trouble finding the invasive Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) because it was snagging my pants and poking its sharp spines into my legs every now and then. In 1875 seeds of Japanese barberry were sent from Russia to the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, Massachusetts. In 1896 plants were planted at the New York Botanic Garden and the plant was promoted as a good substitute for European barberry (Berberis vulgaris,) which was a host for the black stem rust of wheat. These days it’s everywhere, including in our forests, where it tolerates shade and crowds out our much more valuable native plants.

13. Birch Polypore

I saw an interesting television program recently about Ötzi the 5000 year old iceman whose well preserved body was found in the Ötztal Alps in 1991. Among the many things he carried were birch polypores (Piptoporus betulinus,) a fungus that is so common even I rarely write about it. But I’d heard years ago that he carried them when he was found and I assumed that he used them to sharpen tools (They are also called razor strops and their ability to hone a steel edge is well known.) but apparently Ötzi carried them for other purposes; scientists have recently found that Ötzi had several heath issues, among them whipworm, which is an intestinal parasite (Trichuris trichura,) and birch polypores are poisonous to them. The fungus also has antiseptic properties and can be used to heal small wounds, which I’m sure were common 5000 years ago.

14. Birch Polypore Underside

Well, now I’ve done it. While looking into the connection between the 5000 year old iceman and birch polypores I read that as they age both the fungi and the wood they grow on begin to take on an odor similar to green apples, so if you happen to see someone out there with his nose to a birch tree, it’ll be me. The photo above shows the many pores found on the underside of the birch polypore. This is where its spores are produced.

15. LBMs

Ötzi the iceman probably knew the name and medicinal value of every mushroom he saw but I don’t, especially when it comes to the little brown ones, because there are many that look alike. I was surprised to find these examples growing on a log in February. I thought they were probably frozen solid but they were perfectly pliable and felt as tough as shoe leather. I wondered if they had been there all winter or if they had grown recently. Whatever the answer they must have great cold tolerance.

16. Turkey Tails

The snow had melted away from the trunk of this tree revealing turkey tails (Trametes versicolor) that have waited patiently for spring. These fungi are wood degrading and cause white rot, so this rather small tree won’t see old age. Turkey tails have been found on over 70 species of hardwood trees and a few conifers as well. They grow in every state in the U.S. and in most other countries.

17. Turkey Tails

These small turkey tails on a stump looked to be just starting to grow, but what a strange time of year to be doing so.

18. Fern

A fern frond had what looked like flower petals on it, but whatever they were didn’t fall off when the wind blew. I’m guessing that they must have been some kind of insect cocoons but they were very flat and thin.  I can’t remember ever seeing anything like them.

19. Oak Buds

These oak buds appeared to be quite swollen, but that might have been wishful thinking on my part. Still, maple sap is running so the same must be happening to other trees.

20. Pussy Willows

The single bud scales of what I think is the American pussy willow (Salix discolor) have suddenly opened to reveal the fuzzy gray male catkins, but I shouldn’t be surprised because they almost always appear in late winter before the leaves. As these flowers age yellow stamens will appear and will begin releasing pollen. The bees will be buzzing at about that time and they will further cross pollinate the many willow varieties. Henry David Thoreau once said “The more I study willows, the more I am confused,” but I don’t need to study them.  I just enjoy seeing their early flowers because they tell me that nature is stirring and spring is very near.

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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1. Shagbark Hickory Bud

Each year at around this time I get an urge to start looking at the buds of our trees and shrubs to see if there are any signs of swelling. I could look at a calendar to see when spring begins but I prefer watching the plants in the forest, because they’re rarely wrong. Since I read in a local paper that maple sap had started flowing because of a warm December I had to go see for myself. The terminal buds of shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) shown in the above photo are quite large and can fool you into thinking that they are swelling because of spring sap flow but no, they’re this way all winter.

2. Shagbark Hickory Bud Break

Why do I care about watching buds swell? Because beautiful things come from them, like the newly opened bud of the shagbark hickory in the above photo shows. This photo is from a previous blog post of nearly 2 years ago. Unfortunately I won’t get to see this in person again until about mid-May but since it’s one of the most beautiful sights in the spring woods, it’s worth waiting for.

3. Shagbark Hickory Bark

If you’re not sure if what you’re seeing is a shagbark hickory bud just look at the bark. It’s obvious where the name shagbark comes from.

4. Hawthorn Bud

Hickory buds are some of the largest buds I’ve seen but some of the smallest belong to hawthorns (Crataegus) and the cherry red hawthorn bud in the above photo could easily hide behind a pea. There are over 220 species of hawthorn in North America, with at least one native to every state and Canadian province. In New Hampshire we have 17 species, so the chances of my identifying this example are slim to none. The closest I can come is Gray’s hawthorn (Crataegus flabellata.) I know the tree in the photo well so I know that its blossoms will be white.

5. Hawthorn Thorn

If you can’t identify a hawthorn by its buds then its thorns will help. On this example they were about 2 inches long and just as sharp as they look.

6. Lilac Bud

Bud scales are modified leaves that cover and protect the bud through winter. Some buds can have several, some have two, some have just one scale called a cap, and some buds are naked, with none at all. Buds that have several scales are called imbricate with scales that overlap like shingles. A gummy resin fills the spaces between the scales and makes the bud waterproof. This is especially important in cold climates because water freezing inside the bud scales would destroy the bud. The lilac bud (Syringa vulgaris) in the above photo is a good example of an imbricate bud.

7. Blueberry Buds

Highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) buds are also imbricate buds. It’s interesting that almost everything about the blueberry is red except for its berry. The new twigs are red, the bud scales are red, and the fall foliage is very red.

8. Cornelian Cherry Bud

Buds with just two (sometimes three) scales are called valvate. The scales meet but do not overlap. This Cornelian cherry bud is a great example of a valvate bud. In the spring when the plant begins to take up water through its roots the buds swell and the scales part to let the bud grow. Some bud scales are hairy and some are covered with sticky resin that further protects the bud.

Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) is an ornamental flowering shrub related to dogwoods. It blooms in early spring (in March) with clusters of blossoms that have small, bright yellow bracts.

9. Nanny Berry Bud

Native nannyberry buds (Viburnum lentago) are also examples of valvate buds. These buds always remind me of great blue herons or cranes. I think I might have misidentified several nannyberry berries as shadbush berries earlier last fall, so I’m counting on the buds to tell me for sure what they are. If they look like the above example they are sure to be nannyberry. If it wasn’t so icy right now I’d go and find out.

10. Magnolia Bud

Magnolia flower buds in botanical terms are “densely pubescent, single-scaled, terminal flower buds.” The hairy single scale is called a cap and it will fall off only when the bud inside has swollen to the point of blossoming.

11. Red Maple Buds

Red maple flower buds (Acer rubrum) are small and round or oval with short stalks and 4 pairs of bud scales. The bud scales are often purple and / or tomato red. They have a fine fringe of pale hairs on their margins. Red maples can be tapped and syrup made from their sap but the sap gatherers have to watch the trees carefully, because the sap can become bitter when the tree flowers.  I didn’t see any sign of these buds swelling but I hope they will soon. Seeing the hillsides awash in a red haze from hundreds of thousands of red maple flowers is a treat that I always look forward to. Unfortunately I’ve found that it’s almost impossible to capture that beauty with a camera.

12. Box Elder Buds

Box elder buds (Acer negundo) and young twigs are often a beautiful blue or purple color due to their being pruinose. Pruinose means a surface is covered in white, powdery, waxy granules that reflect light in ways that often make the surface they are on appear blue. Certain grapes, plums, and blueberries are pruinose fruits. Certain lichens like the beautiful smoky eye boulder lichen have fruiting bodies (Apothecia) that are often pruinose.

13. Beech Bud

Another bud I’m looking forward to seeing open is the beech (Fagus grandifolia.) There are beautiful silvery downy edges on the new laves that only last for a day or two, so I watch beech trees closely starting in May. Botanically beech buds are described as “narrow conical, highly imbricate, and sharply pointed.”

14. Witch Hazel Buds

I went out to look at buds but never expected to see any of them actually opening on January 30th, so you could have knocked me over with a feather when I found this vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis) with its petals just peeking out of its flower buds. We’ve had above average temperatures every month since November and have been 6 degrees above normal for January, but I think this shrub might be jumping the gun just a bit. It lives in a local park and I don’t know its name, but it’s a real beauty when it’s all in bloom in the spring. Since it’s blooming now the question is will it still bloom in spring?

15. Daffodil Buds

As if the witch hazel blossoms weren’t enough there were daffodils out of the ground a short distance away, and I started feeling like I had fallen down the rabbit hole. Plants can and do get fooled but not often. Right now most of the signs are pointing to an early spring and even Punxsutawney Phil, the weather predicting groundhog in Punxsutawney Pennsylvania, says spring is right around the corner.

16. Winter Tree Finder

I hope this little foray into the world of buds has left you wanting to go out and start looking a little closer at the branches of trees and shrubs in your own neighborhood. I started looking at our local trees years ago; right after the little paperback booklet in the above photo was published in 1968. I carried it in my back pocket and started trying to identify common trees that I already knew something about, like apples and maples. The booklet is still being published today and costs little, especially if you find it in a used bookstore. It is also online in PDF format, and you can find it by clicking on the word HERE.

Winter is on my head, but eternal spring is in my heart. ~Victor Hugo

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 1. Sap Buckets

People who collect maple sap the old way in buckets like these are becoming a rare breed. The sap is flowing but syrup producers say it’s coming slowly, in fits and starts, because we’ve had so many cold days. Daytime temperatures need to be in the mid-forties and nighttime temps at around 28 degrees  for optimal sap flow. Though some days and nights have been perfect it hasn’t been consistent. We’re still seeing below zero nights and, since the 4-6 week season ends in early April, each cold snap brings a renewed sense of urgency. Last year New Hampshire produced 176,000 gallons of syrup. In the abnormally warm winter of 2012 producers didn’t even see half that amount, and this year it might be cold that hinders production.

 2. Muddy Road

When we have the kind of cold we’ve had this year it drives the frost deep into the ground. In spring when the soil begins to thaw the water can’t seep into the frozen ground so it sits on top, saturating the soil to the point where it can’t hold any more water. When the soil in question happens to be a road, things can get very interesting. Here in New England we call it “mud season” and when I drove over the road in the above photo I knew it was upon us, because it felt like I was driving on gelatin. Our roads become quaking quagmires that have been known to swallow even 40 foot long school buses.  If you’d like to see some photos of mud season in all its muckiness, just click here.

 3. Peat Mosses

In the swamps, peat mosses aren’t wasting any time. They seem to green up almost immediately after the snow melts. I just read that scientists took a piece of moss from part of an Arctic ice core sample that was over 1000 years old. When they exposed it to light and warmth the ancient moss grew just fine. This moss that is now green once again was alive when Rome was in its infancy. This is why some people wonder if mosses and lichens ever really die.

 4. Skunk Cabbage 

Skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) are growing fast in spite of the cold nights. Since they produce their own heat through a process called thermogenesis, they don’t care how cold it is. This photo shows skunk cabbage spathes partly out of the soil. Once they reach full size they will open so flies can visit the flower covered spadix within.

 5. Vernal Witch Hazel 

The vernal witch hazels (Hamamelis vernalis) keep poking out their strap like petals, only to roll them back up again because of the cold. They, like the maples, are going through fits and starts this year.

 6. Red Maple Buds

Red maple (Acer rubrum) and other tree buds are swelling and the hills off in the distance have taken on a reddish haze that is impossible for me to take a photo of, so I settled for a branch. Red maples are one of the first trees to flower in spring and I always look forward to seeing them because they are very pretty. The sap can be made into syrup just like that of sugar maples but it turns bitter when the buds start to break. Since they appear earlier than those of sugar maples, the season doesn’t last as long.

 7. Red Maple Buds

Both red and sugar maple buds are high energy foods and eastern gray squirrels eat them in spring. These buds also have high moisture content and that means that squirrels don’t have to leave a tree for a drink at this time of year.

 8. New Fern Growth 

I spotted this fern growing on a boulder. The cluster of round buds in its center will grow into new shoots, called fiddleheads, before too long. The only fern in this area with fiddleheads that are safe to eat is the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris). They are considered an early spring delicacy but they need to be prepared and cooked correctly or they can make you sick. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has investigated a number of outbreaks of food-borne illness cause by raw and undercooked fiddleheads. They should always be boiled for at least 15 minutes.  Some say you can also eat lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina) and bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) fiddleheads but there is a great debate raging about the safety of eating them, so I can’t say for sure if you should or shouldn’t.

 9. Trailing Arbutus

The snow has melted enough to reveal the tough, leathery, evergreen leaves of trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens). My grandmother always called this plant mayflower but I’ve found its fragrant pinkish flowers much earlier in April. Because it has been so cold this year though, it might live up to its common name. I usually find it in mixed forests growing on sunny embankments.

 10. Oak Leaf on Snow

Last year’s oak and beech leaves are starting to fall. More signs of spring.

 11. Grasses in the Sun

The afternoon sun catching these dry grasses looked very spring like, but the scene looked better in person than it does in the photo.

12. Melting Snow

Sometimes spring comes creeping in quietly and slowly and is hardly noticeable, so we seem to go from winter right into summer. I have a feeling that this year will be that way.

Tomorrow, the first day of spring, will mark the 3 year anniversary of this blog. I remember wondering how I’d ever get through 6 months of it, so thanks go to all of you who have kept it going.

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

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