March, the month of first shoots in the forest understory

March is the month of first shoots in the forest understory. Wild garlic pierces the matted leaf litter. False mermaid sprouts emerge around the edges of sugar maple leaves. Spring beauty sprawls beneath oak leaves blown up against the tree trunks or escaped from the spring fires out in the expanses between the trees, fragile white petioles spreading into green, delicious, straplike leaves. Dandelion and wild lettuce and orchard grass green up along the trail. Rosettes of annual bedstraw push up through curling browned leaves while their cotyledons stay down below and are forgotten or, by most, never known, eclipsed by the cleaving tangle of stems and foliage that will scramble over the forest floor in the coming weeks. Wild leek leaves show up, at first folded inside bluish translucent sheaths, tips bent over, then spreading as the sheaths tear open along the edges and the leaves fill with water and harden like wings of a newly emerged cicada. Virginia bluebell foliage erupts.

This is the season when evergreen leaves begin mothering in then giving way to spring shoots. The woodland sedges have mostly been green all winter long, but now they get a jump start on the summer. Two weeks ago, white bear sedge was sending up light green shoots from evergreen rosettes. Pennsylvania sedge seems to be greening up all over, not just the slender young tillers, but even the leaves that overwintered, aside of course from the brown foliage reclining at the base. This year’s shoots of Carex tribuloides are sprouting from the nodes of last year’s fallen vegetative culms, provisioned by the mother plant until they get their toes into the soil. Perhaps it is their evergreenness that gives carices an advantage in the woods, where they dominate the graminoid understory. They green up rapidly even after a fire or deer browsing: staying active under the snow, capturing what light is available when you can, may help them get started in the spring. Winter leaves of white avens and strawberry are still photosynthesizing, but they are passing the baton to the sprouts beneath, which will become next year’s evergreen foliage. The woodland asters are holding out before they send up this year’s shoots.

I am a Madison naturalist at heart, so I still think of March 1 as the day the cranes come back, even though it’s a day or two earlier down here. This year, the first cranes started coming through in late February, and last weekend’s flocks over DuPage County were the largest in my memory. Robbie Q. Telfer reported that at least one flock was a mix of sandhill and whooping cranes. Chorus frogs have been singing, and Friday afternoon I heard spring peepers on my bike ride home. Two weeks ago I noticed the first seedlings of false mermaid in Maple Grove Forest Preserve, only a few days later than I noticed them in 2018, along with a few sprawling shoots of spring beauty. This is the month for woodcocks (which I haven’t heard yet this year for lack of walking around at the right time) and song sparrows (which are everywhere right now), for robins to be noisy in the morning and spend their afternoons flipping over fallen leaves in search of insects, for phoebes to return: I heard my first along the DuPage River on Friday morning. It is the month for catkins to expand and silver maple flowers to bloom, black cherry buds to swell. Among the familiarities, March always bring new friends as well. This year, I saw Mnium or some closely related moss bristling with sporophytes in Maple Grove Forest Preserve, and I learned a species I probably should have known years ago: winter aconite, a buttercup relative from Eurasia that has been planted at the Arboretum since at least the 1970s, but known as an escapee in northeastern Illinois only since the unseasonably warm spring of 2012 (via herbarium records as well as discussion in Wilhelm and Rericha’s Flora of the Chicago Region). It is a beauty, but as a relatively new weed it’s one to keep our eyes on.

And for parents of school-age students, March is the month of spring break. I find the week off with my family often coincides with transitions in my work projects as well, and this year was no exception. As a consequence, it’s a time for me to clear my mind. My family and I spent a few days in Boston. We visited the magnificent glass plants at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. We spent a morning prowling the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum, where Rachel pointed out to me the oak trees in Jan Moy’s (16th Century) tapestry “Queen Tomyris rejects Cyrus’s proposal of marriage”. I spent a day with colleagues at the Arnold Arboretum. Perhaps the best part of the trip was our morning at the MIT museum, where we stumbled across an exhibit of kinetic sculptures by Arthur Ganson. They are intricate machines built of hand-wrought gears and screws, pulleys and levers, welded to objects that we might toss out: torn paper, an artichoke petal, an abandoned baby doll, a broken miniature chair. These things come to life as the gears turn, and your attention is riveted as you watch them move. A wishbone lumbers across the table. A platter of uncooked black-eyed peas rolls like the sea. The mundane becomes miraculous.

March awakens me every year, revisiting old themes and presenting me with a few surprises.

Plants referenced:

  • Acer saccharinum – silver maple
  • Acer saccharum – sugar maple
  • Allium canadense – wild garlic
  • Carex albursina – white bear sedge
  • Carex jamesii – James’s sedge
  • Carex pensylvanica – Pennsylvania sedge
  • Carex tribuloides – sedge
  • Claytonia virginica – spring beauty
  • Corylus americana – hazelnut
  • Eranthis hyemalis – winter aconite
  • Floerkea prosperinacoides – false mermaid
  • Fragaria virginiana – strawberry
  • Galium aparine – cleavers, annual bedstraw
  • Geum canadense – white avens
  • Lactuca – lettuce
  • Prunus serotina – black cherry
  • Symphyotrichum drummondii – Drummond’s aster
  • Taraxacum officinale – dandelion

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