Large-flower bellwort, swamp buttercup, Pennsylvania sedge and spicebush in bloom

Yesterday morning was just above freezing, but the previous week saw temperatures to the mid 50s and 60s most days. In Maple Grove, the Enemion is in full bloom. Virginia bluebells have extended their necks up above the tips of their foliage and appear ready to bloom. The first true leaves are hiding between pennylike cotyledons at the tip of the jewelweed (Impatiens pallida) shoots. Blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) leaves and stems are unrolling while the bloodroot petals are falling off in droves, exposing the ripening capsules. Sugar maple buds are 2 to 3 times as long this week as they were just 7 days ago, about to open, and on their seedlings, foliage leaves are starting to take shape between the straplike cotyledons. Wild ginger (Asarum canadense) leaves are flattening out, flower buds closed on the soil at their bases. Flowers have begun opening on the Uvularia grandiflora. Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) leaves are unfurling. Swamp buttercup (Ranunculus hispidus) is in bloom. The spring sedges are about to flower: Carex pensylvanica with its dark spikes and the gracile inflorescences of Carex woodii, while the slender erect shoots of Carex sprengelii show no flowers. By afternoon the temperatures were in the 50s. At about 7 p.m., I realized that every car in line at the carwash was filthy. Tree pollen? Dirty rain? By 8:45 the moon was full, and Sirius was bright in the west. We slept with the windows open.

As a consequence, my wife and I awoke at 3:45 this morning to singing robins. I arrived at the Arboretum and started walking out through the conifer collection just as the sun was rising. Tree swallows, chipping sparrows, red-wing blackbirds, song sparrows and chickadees were all going strong. The big Quercus montana just west of the research building is in bloom, and staminate flowers on the blue ash (Fraxinus quadrangulata) east of the Children’s Garden are dark and packed full of stamens waiting to open up. Pyrus ussuriensis is in bloom along the trail out through the East Woods. Cleavers (Galium aparine) has overtopped the trout lilies, leaf tips purple in at least one colony west of Crowley Marsh. Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) leaves have unfurled as high as my boot-top. About a third of the Geranium maculatum leaves are about fully open, and floral buds are closed at the bases of the petioles. Ohio buckeye (Aesculus glabra) leaves have burst open, reflexed scales an inch or so long, individual leaves to three inches in diameter, clusters of leaves making a handful of six to ten from each bud. Poms of yellow stamens decorate the Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) branches. Viola sororia, Thalictrum thalictroides and swamp buttercup are in bloom. Marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) are blooming at the base of the boardwalk overlooking Bur Reed Marsh. The first pistillate flowers are out on a single blackened spike of Carex pensylvanica, and floral buds have formed on Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans) and Anemone quinquefolia. Chorus frogs are creaking, slowly this morning.

Through almost the whole walk, I had lyrics from The Smiths’ The Queen is Dead running through my head. As I rounded the trail back toward the Research Building, just west of Parking Lot 15, I squeezed the Smiths out of my head long enough to realize that the birds were no longer singing. Why? Time of day? It was now about 45 minutes past sunrise, and perhaps the birds were in need of a break. Or is there something about this stretch of woods between P15 and P16? In the Arbor Vitae plantation to the north I might have expected silence, but here was a small ravine, a colony of Dutchman’s breeches in bloom, flowers hovering above the foliage, a little brush in the understory… it seemed a perfect place to be a bird. Whatever the reason, as I walked in the silence toward the road, the opening stanza of Canterbury Tales appeared suddenly where the The Smiths had been just a few minutes earlier:

Whan that April with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swiche licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
What Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inpsired hath in every holt and heethe
The tendre croppes, and the younge sonne
Hath in the Ram his half cours y-rronne,

… and here I had forgotten the middle lines. I repeated these over to myself till I had them right, then picked up two more as I through the ground cover garden and made my way into work:

So priketh hem nature in hir corages:
Than longen folk to goon on pilrimages…

It’s that season now, when you wake up to robins and don’t know quite what will have happened in the previous few days. April has soaked the place down, Zephyrus has inspired the wildflowers and is working on the trees, and the solar year is young. It’s the time of year when I simultaneously miss the silence of winter and can’t wait for the next day.

Blooming in the East Woods: Bloodroot, trout-lily (almost! both white and yellow), false-rue anemone, rue-anemone, Dutchman’s-breeches, Hepatica, and more!

I spent Friday afternoon at Lake McMurtry in Stillwater, Oklahoma. I had given a seminar in the Department of Plant Biology, Ecology and Evolution the previous day, and this afternoon Mark Fishbein and his dog Amelia and I had a few hours to prowl around in the woods. Post oak (Quercus stellata), blackjack oak (Q. marilandica) and chinkapin oak (Q. muehlenbergii) were in bloom: the first two had flowers about a half inch long, while the latter was already producing silver-dollar sized leaves. The lawn was filled with nondescript leaves of Ophioglossum engelmannii, limestone adder’s-tongue, and flowering Northoscordum bivalve, false garlic. I would undoubtedly know these if I had spent any amount of time botanizing in the southeast. The soil was a red clay, with sandstone outcroppings along the trailside giving rise to a fern I would have taken for Cystopteris, but that Mark informed me later was Woodsia obtusa. We walked through a dry oak forest along the edge of the reservoir. On our walk, there were Sisyrinchium angustifolium, Oxalis violacea, Antennaria, Claytonia virginica, Viola sororia, Houstonia, Lithospermum incisum, Chaerophyllum tainturieri and blooming Sherardia arvensis, along with foliage of Galium circaezans. There were at least four sedges: Carex blanda, what I believe were Carex muehlenbergii ($50 bet on this one, though the inflorescences were immature with closed, silvery spikes) and C. albicans ($30 bet until I can get a look at some decent material in the herbarium), and a C. rosea relative that I didn’t get sufficient material of to put a name on. Tufted titmouse and, I believe, blue-gray gnatcatchers were calling. There was no snow.

I returned Saturday to temperatures in the low 50s. A mass of Geranium maculatum rhizomes have been exposed by water spewing from the sump-pump this spring. Leaves are emerging from the tips of the branches, about the size of squirrels’ ears. Wild ginger leaves are as big around as a quarter, folded in half around each other, their backs felty. Solomon’s seal leaves are opening, and the May-apples are emerging from their bud scales. Dark green Carex gracillima shoots are four inches high, and the C. sprengelii and C. typina are a mass of light green foliage. Along the north side of the house, our cup plants are one to three inches high. Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) has opened up into a rosette about as big around as my hand, and one has produced flower buds. Viola sororia leaves are just starting to flatten out. The Carex eburnea in our front garden is bristling with silver spikes.

The next day in Maple Grove Forest Preserve, I found the slopes bright green with false mermaid (Floerkea proserpinacoides), anthers hiding in the floral buds nestled near the bases of lateral branches, which are tipped with especially narrowly lobed leaves. Jewelweed leaves were as big around as nickels. Maple seedlings are everywhere, straplike cotyledons to 1.5 inches long, one capped with the brown, fibrous remnants of the winged fruit. Phoebes were singing. Leeks had expanded to full size, leaves to 3 finger-widths in breadth and in length extending from the tip of my middle finger to below my watchband. Buds were swelling on the black cherry and burning bush. There were new leaves on the Geum and Ranunculus hispidus and May-apples further emerged from their buds than in our garden, the centers of their leaves whitish against the dark green blades folded umbrellalike beneath them.

This week, the East Woods are well beyond where they were a week ago. Sugar maple seedlings are everywhere. Lonicera leaves are nearly an inch long, gooseberry leaves are penny-sized. The woodland sedges are popping up: Carex hirtifolia shoots are four inches high, the new leaves on C. albursina are about two inches long, and the slender, white-striped dark green shoots of Carex sparganioides can be found along the trail west of P10. Early leaves of Sanicula, Phlox, Alliaria and Arctium, Osmorhiza and bright green Agrimonia can be found throughout the woods, along with leaves of Geranium maculatum to nearly two inches in diameter. Cleavers (Galium aparine) is protruding upright to several inches above the leaf litter, turning lighter green as it grows more quickly. There are floral buds on the white and yellow trout lilies (Erythronium albidum and E. americanum respectively), dogtooth violets (Cardamine concatenata) with flowers splayed open, about a third of the false rue-anemone (Enemion biternatum) in full bloom and, just west of Bur Reed Marsh, a lovely patch of nearly 20 rue-anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides) is blooming with perfect white flowers. Further down the trail west of the marsh, there is an archipelago of bloodroot Sanguinaria canadensis in the burned woods, perhaps 15 islands of 6–50 or more blooming plants each, petals erect as I walked by them this morning, leaves enfolding their scapes. Dutchman’s-breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) flowers are mostly still developing, but one plant this morning had two flowers mature and five more on the way, ranging from 2–10 mm in length. Virginia bluebells are almost ready to bloom, flowers opened from the tight little fists they were a week ago to Wood anemone (Anemone quinquefolia) is in floral bud. Claytonia virginica is still in bloom. A few magnificent patches of Hepatica acutiloba are in bloom, flowers white to lavender, hairs dense on the lower two-thirds of the scape.

From the beginning of my trip to Oklahoma through my walk this morning, John Burroughs’ deliberate and inspired Whitman: A Study has been humming in the background. I picked the book up somewhat on accident, largely because it’s what I had at hand as I was leaving, and I started reading it almost reluctantly as I boarded the plane Thursday morning. Burroughs affects a person very differently than Whitman (though it is no surprise to find they were friends), and I wasn’t quite in the mood for Burroughs. But his account of Whitman as a human, traversing the hospital wards of the Civil War, writing, observing, is haunting. For no good reason other than that I am still thinking about it, and altogether unrelated to phenology of the East Woods, I’ll leave you with two quotes from the book: First, from the section entitled His Self-Reliance: “Emerson reasoned and remonstrated with [Whitman] for hours, walking up and down Boston Common, and after he had finished his argument, says Whitman, which was unanswerable, ‘I felt down in my soul the clear and unmistakable conviction to disobey all, and pursue my own way.’ He told Emerson so, whereupon they went and dined together.” And then, from Burroughs’ introduction to the book: “… my main purpose in writing about Whitman, as in writing about nature, is to tell readers what I have found there, with the hope of inducing them to look for themselves.”

Enjoy the woods, and, if you have the time and inclination, Whitman and Burroughs.

With a few days of warm temperatures, bloodroot has bloomed, and false rue anemone is almost ready to go

The temperature was about 20 degrees Fahrenheit at sunrise on Sunday a week ago, but there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and the cardinals and robins and mourning doves were singing when I stepped outside. At Maple Grove Forest Preserve, the woodpeckers and flickers and nuthatches were going strong. The ground was frozen. Ice crystals in the soil were as much as a centimeter long. The wild leeks and Virginia bluebells were rigid, frozen in mid-expansion, but perfect in appearance: they looked and felt like wax plants. I wondered if they would suffer from having frozen so hard. The false mermaid had advanced slowly over the previous week even with the cold and had just begun spreading across the leaf litter. It was frozen less completely than the leeks and bluebells, probably because such a small plant is proportionally more protected from the cold by the blanket of oak leaves.

The next day I awoke to snow on the ground and the sound of our neighbor’s yard sprinkler running on automatic. But on Wednesday temperatures rose into the 60s, and by Thursday it appeared that everything had grown by a few inches after weeks of holding tight. In the East Woods, Camassia scilloides shoots were five inches high. Trout lily (Erythronium albidum), jumpseed (Polygonum virginianum), basal leaves of Symphyotrichum drummondii and violet (Viola sororia)were all visible. Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) floral buds were turning white at the tips. Friday, a few colleagues and I found Galium concinnum a few inches tall, flowers on a bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), and floral buds almost ready to open on the toothwort (Cardamine laciniata), which had unfurled dramatically in just a couple of days. Foliage of Virginia waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum) was about half-size, and its close cousin H. appendiculatum showed foliage about 1/4-size or smaller. Anemone quinquefolia leaves could be found at the bases of many of the trees. A very small clump of Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) peeked up above the leaf litter.

It is Sunday again, and temperatures are hovering just above freezing. It has been raining on and off for the past 36 hours and rained almost incessantly overnight. Water was funneling through every channel in Maple Grove this morning, collecting in the low spots and racing through the culverts. I needn’t have worried about the wild leeks: they look fine, though they appear not to have grown much in the past week. Prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum) is up. There are clones of short, sharp trout lily leaves scattered throughout the woods. False rue anemone (Enemion biternatum) is in bud, and I found one bloodroot with closed flowers. The forest is carpeted with false mermaid, but none appear to be in flower. It seems odd that the first plant to come up in the woods, one of the first to die back in early May, is not also the first to bloom. Did I just miss it? I’ve been watching this plant since it first showed up this year, and I don’t think I would have missed it, but I’ll keep my eyes peeled.

On the way out of the woods this morning, I came across a brown creeper moving from tree to tree, seemingly unconcerned at my presence. From one tree to the next, he made no effort to move away from me. I drove home listening to the rain on the road and the Irish poet Michael Longley on the radio. He was talking about a cabin he’s been visiting since his children were young. We always think that travel broadens our horizons, he was saying, but going from one place to another also makes us more shallow. Longley was saying how he often thinks that he’s written the last poem he could possibly wring out of the place where his cabin stands, but then he invariably finds there’s another poem waiting for him there. Spring in a familiar place is a particular joy, perhaps because the pleasure of the season resides in the nuances of its trajectory from winter to summer and back again. The vagaries of the local climate are most palpable when you are attuned to past seasons in that same place. I arrived home to have breakfast with my sons. We were in the city yesterday, and they are happy to be home today with the sleeping cats, rain tapping endlessly on the side of the house.

Peepers, ruby-crowned kinglets, cleavers (Galium aparine) growing over the leaf litter

When the cat came in this morning, his back was wet and he seemed cold, and I promptly put on long underwear. This turned out to be unnecessary: the robins were singing en masse when I left the house at 5:20, and there were cardinals calling before I even reached the Arboretum. Song sparrows and red wing blackbirds were singing from the wetland just inside the Finley Road gate. The chorus frogs were singing excruciatingly slowly. I locked up at Parking Lot 10 and ate my breakfast at the bench just uptrail. The woods were burned yesterday between P8 and P10, and I had hoped to find glowing embers this morning, but all was dark and quiet as I ate breakfast and on my walk west to the oak and maple collections.

Wood ducks squeaked from the pond at the entrance to the woods on the west boarder of the maple collection. A towhee called. Spring peepers called from Bur Reed Marsh. Yesterday on my walk in, a few bluebirds were feeding from low tree branches in the woods on the west edge of the marsh. They would perch a few moments on a branch or the thick ridges of a bur oak about 3-4 feet above the ground, drop to the leaves to pick up an insect, then return to another perch. Are they really able to see anything in the leaf litter from that height? Phoebes were moving around low in the brush. Galium aparine is just starting to scramble over the top of the leaf litter, the best-developed annual I see in the woods right now. Carol Baskin1 reports that there are 96 (!) winter annuals in Fernald’s brilliant 8th Edition of Gray’s Manual of Botany, but I know of only two in our woods: G. aparine, or cleavers, and false mermaid (Floerkea proserpinaca). Perhaps there are others. The cotyledons are paired on long petioles, with blades about 1 cm in diameter. Taylor (2001)2 writes that every population of the species has individuals that germinate in autumn as well as individuals that germinate in spring, but I don’t know if this is true in our area (Taylor was writing in England). These plants are very well developed for annuals and have dark green foliage that looks to me as though it got an early start this spring. My suspicion is that the cleavers grows earlier on than false mermaid does, and that we are seeing first growth following winter.

West of Bur Reed Marsh, I tramped over the hilltop to the main road and caught the main trail east again. It was getting light out, gradually, still cloudy. This is the kind of morning you climb uphill into, not an erupting-into-birdsong kind of morning. Chickadees were calling by now, and as I neared Big Rock Visitor Station, a great owl called from up near the Heritage Trail. A ruby-crowned kinglet called from the opposite side of the trail. I walked past Virginia bluebells just coming up (perhaps a week behind the bluebells in Maple Grove Forest Preserve) to get my bike. On the ride into the office, I passed three wood ducks taking off, and floral buds swollen just to opening on an American elm in the living collections (1053-28*2). Two male robins were fighting in the parking lot.


1 Baskin CC, Hawkins TS, Baskin JM. 2004. Ecological Life Cycle of Chaerophyllum procumbens variety shortii (Apiaceae), a Winter Annual of the North American Eastern Deciduous Forest. The Journal of the Torrey Botanical Society 131: 126–139. [PDF]

2 Taylor K. 2001. Galium aparine L. Journal of Ecology 87: 713–730.