When I am 90

Wildflowers have been ticking into bloom this past week, a few per day. One day was Jacob’s ladder. Yesterday was geranium and Uvularia grandiflora. The day before yesterday, I realized that the false mermaid that I had reported as dying back just last week is in fact bolting in many parts of the Arboretum and putting out flowers. I think this must be the way with this plant, one of our few winter annuals: walking around the woods this week, I’m finding plenty of patches where there are short yellowed leaves that appear to be dying back right next to tall flowering shoots. Blue cohosh was abruptly up and in flower the same day. The first true leaves of touch-me-not are about the same size as their cotyledons. White-throated sparrows have come back into town. American maples and hop hornbeam are mostly in full flower, with some floral buds and catkins just perched on the edge of fully open. American toads started singing in the pond by our house Easter weekend. Tree swallows can be heard in the fields and edges of the woods. Mosquitos buzz in your ear in the still morning. It’s bright enough to botanize now by about 5:45.

Today I get to the Finley gate about 10 minutes past sunrise. The redbuds are in full bloom on the east-facing slope, a cloud of purple intermixed with a couple of smaller flowering sugar maples glowing in the sun that’s shining in from under a bank of clouds. Garlic mustard is in bloom. I turn the corner and head uphill to the main road. The redbuds are on the hilltop now, backlit, flowers nearly the same color as the sky. Black raspberry (Rubus occidentalis) has leafed out. I bike the road slowly to the entrance of the woods. Yellow violets and small-flowered buttercup are in bloom. Carex hirtifolia is putting on an anther show that rivals any other sedge in the woods. Poison ivy leaflets are a centimeter long. Wild ginger flowers are still in bud; in ourĀ garden at home, they are open for business, but that patch consistently gets too much sun for its own good. Solomon’s seal and false Solomon’s seal are leafing out here, a few with the tiny floral buds just emerging underneath the stem: in our garden, the Solomon’s seal flowers are already nearly open.

I pick up the trail south of the bridge. Anemone quinquefolia is in full flower, while the Enemion and Thalictrum thalictroides, the false and true rue anemones respectively, are starting to look a bit bedraggled. Our old friend Ken Wood insisted on calling “false rue anemone” by its scientific name — it was Isopyrum rather than Enemion at that time — pointing out that it wasn’t false anything: it actually is what it is. I still falter over the common name. Toothwort in this part of the woods is going to seed. A patch of prairie trillium is flowering. Field sparrows are common now, singing from the fields adjacent to the East Woods all through the morning. I see a bumblebee patrolling over the leaf litter: I run after it, but it’s gone, and with several minutes of looking I don’t find it again. What a great time of year to be a bumblebee! I’d be happy to be a bumblebee for a few days, botanizing low to the ground, solitary in the woods on these perfect spring mornings.

Further down the trail, the Thalictrum dioicum is in bloom, about 70% of the staminate flowers fully open, the remainder packed with stamens huddling in the doorway. I cross the road at Parking Lot 11 on the trail that leads to Big Rock Visitor Station. There is a magnificent stand of mayapples here with leaves as big around as pie platters, floral buds nodding in the crotches of the double leaves. This part of the woods sports a flotilla of Virginia bluebells every year. Is it awful not to like them? I find them oppressive, over the top, as though the woods were being taken over by someone’s garden.

I hustle past to the hilltop overlooking the ephemeral pond that is full of chorus frogs. The view is magnificent: lemon yellow flowers on the sugar maples in the canopy below, hillside green with false mermaid and trout lily, white flowers of the Dutchman’s breeches floating above like tiny schools of fish in an enormous aquarium. The ravine below is carpeted with false mermaid and Ranunculus hispidus. One patch of wood’s sedge (Carex woodii</>) stands by trail with erect narrow leaves, bases burgundy, stamens wobbling in the breeze, stigmas akimbo. Trillium grandiflorum is in floral bud. A nuthatch passes through. A woodpecker starts up behind me. I walk on further to find a patch of T. grandiflorum in full outstanding flower. Blue cohosh flowers along the trail and a bluebird passes by.

A truck rounds the corner. The workday is starting, and I need to pick up a vehicle to get to Chicago Botanic Gardens. It’s for a PhD defense by good student and a good person. I’m looking forward to the conversation and the science and even the drive over, coffee in hand and lots of ground to cover with a friend and colleague who has come into town for the defense. Still, I’m reluctant to change gears. Spring comes every year… but it only comes every year, and every day is different than the one before it. What will be in flower tomorrow? When I’m 90, I’ll still be watching this patter of moths awakening, plants emerging and flowers opening, birds coming into town, woodcocks starting and then moving on, frogs starting and then being done for the year, warblers coming through, trees leafing out, ferns unfurling, Will it be less exciting? I love this as much now as I did 25 years ago when my wife and I first met. I can’t wait to see what next week looks like.

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