The woods are pooling with wildflowers, red admiral butterflies are sparring

This week, the spring ephemerals erupted into bloom in the woods. Red admiral butterflies started sparring in the lawn adjacent to the Children’s Garden.

Wildflowers flooded the woods over Easter weekend, like water spilled over the edges of the creek, running in sheets across the fallen oak leaves and overtopping the foliage that has carpeted the woods the past two weeks. The spring beauty in the woods caught up with its cousins under the planted oaks, where the mulched beds are still pooling with white and pink. The yellow trout lilies in the north half of the East Woods are deep yellow, deeper than the yellow of marshmallow Peeps or egg yolks, tulips or Forsythias. Bristly buttercup is flowering in seeps, and large-flowered bellwort, wood anemone, rue-anemone and false rue-anemone are blooming in the uplands. Downy yellow violets and wood violets flower beside each other under the oaks. Marsh marigold fills the springy seeps. Virginia bluebell flowers have gone from closed at the beginning of the week to perhaps a quarter of them open on Thursday.

This is the week for woodland wildflowers. There are still far more leaves than flowers, however. For every square foot of white trout lily flowers, there are perhaps 4 more of unflowering trout lily lawn. For every toothwort bloom there is a garden of groundcover. Bloodroot flowers have already gone to pieces while the leaves continue to expand, sopping up sunlight to provision the swelling capsules. Wild leeks are unabashedly soaking it up. Wild garlic and broad-leaved bedstraw haven’t so much as thought of flowering. Duckweed is spreading across ponds. It is perhaps a sedge taxonomist’s conceit, but I cannot help thinking of the flowers as an incidental part of life in the woods. I know better, of course: without flowers we don’t have sex and recombination, and there are all sorts of reasons to want those. But when I look at the woods, even in this week of flowers, I see autotrophs, photosynthesizing behind their finery.

On my walk out on Monday evening, about 5:00 p.m., I followed my typical shortcut, out the back side of the research building, up the path through the conifers, then northeast around the Pinus densiflora toward the Children’s garden and the four pillars at the top of the hill. I typically think of this lawny no-man’s land as a place to hustle through and scan for flowering weeds, use the steps to check my camera, get my head calibrated for a few minutes of looking once I get back into the woods, where I’ll gather up observations on the way back to my bike. Rounding the Pinus densiflora, I entered a sort of room of spruces to the west, the Children’s garden 100 feet to the north, a Pinus cembra to the south. The Picea koyamae was tall enough to crack its crown over the fence if it fell toward the garden. The noise of I-88 died down with the pine between us, and I saw a butterfly moving around. I thought at first it was a mourning cloak, but there was too much color. Painted lady? No… red admiral? Probably, but there wasn’t much time for wondering about that, because I realized after focusing on the one that in fact I was in a clearing with many, all apparently involved in some kind of chase, flying around each other into the air.

I’ve seen individual butterflies doing this, meeting each other in midair and then flying up and around one another, spiraling higher and higher before they split off or a third comes in. But at this moment it seemed to be all around me. At first I felt I’d walked into utter chaos, a riot of butterflies, but within a minute or two what I was seeing sorted out a bit, and it seemed perhaps just two or three red admirals were taking turns patrolling this little spot. Or maybe each was patrolling a subarea within a larger room closed in by trees and shrubs. The others appeared to be interlopers or playing tag-team, so there were always just a couple or a few in charge of the opening. The core butterflies at any given moment would rest periodically on a patch of matted dead grasses in the otherwise greening lawn, only for a second at most, then fly into the air to greet an incoming butterfly. They would circle upward in a helix, and often a third would come in and that one and one of the first two would go barreling off toward the south, up near the treetops, almost as fast as a hummingbird patrolling between flowers–is that possible?–while the remaining butterfly settled down to rest for his allotted 1/2-second.

They were ceaseless, and I could not get a decent photo. I crouched for several minutes by the dead grass where they would perch, waiting with camera in hand, but I landed only one photo, a horrible one, enough however to identify the butterflies positively as red admirals. After 15 minutes or so, I had to go. I wasn’t able to get back to thinking about this until the next day, but with a little reading I found that Vanessa atalanta L., the red admiral, is notoriously territorial. In a 1979 article in the Journal of Research on the Lepidoptera, Royce Bitzer and Kenneth Shaw describe observations made on the Iowa State University campus, where they identified five red admiral territories. Their observations were uncannily like what I observed: males occupied territories, generally ellipses of 12-24 m long, with a few resting spots on bare ground or sidewalk, invariably lighter than the surrounding grass. Intruders (or, perhaps for the scientists’ amusement, dry floating leaves) were intercepted by the resident males, who charged from beneath and forced the potential invaders upward in a spiral to the level of the surrounding treetops, boosted them over the rim of their shrub- or tree-enclosed room, and went back to patrolling. They did not feed, oviposit, mate, or roost within their defended territories. They were fast and intent.

That night I sat on the bedside with my son and listened with him to the story of Icarus and Daedalus, which was playing on the CD player beside his bed. As Icarus fell into the water, I recalled W.H. Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts”. The poem centers around a visit he describes in a letter to a friend thus: “I have been doing the art gallery and trying to appreciate Rubens. The daring and vitality take one’s breath away, but what is it all ABOUT?” His poem begins with lines that follow you around on your afternoon walks:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along…

and then closes with a scene from Breughel’s depiction of the death of Icarus, in which the entire painting is filled with doing and life and activity, and far off in the background we see the smallest and most insignificant of splashes. He tells us:

… the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Daedalus circles over the water watching for his son while late April blooms bob above the foliage. Blue-gray gnatcatchers bizz and wheeze along the tree branches. Flies buzz through the yard. Bumblebees patrol low over the tops of the plants. Bur oak leaves have emerged from the bud but are hugging each other tightly, backs ridged, tummies hidden, the size of voles’ tongues. In only a few days, false mermaid has bolted and flowered, upright carrion flower has formed fists of floral buds, prairie trillium has started blooming in a few places, the petals of great white trillium have peeked out from between the bud scales. Blue cohosh is about to flower. Wood’s sedge and Sprengel’s sedge and Pennsylvania sedge are in full flower.

Wednesday afternoon at around 2 p.m., I returned to the place where the red admirals had been sparring. There were painted ladies flitting around, but none interacting, and no red admirals. I know from years past that there will still be flowers in the woods next week. But I have no idea about the red admirals. I don’t know if they’ll be fighting next week or if they’re done for the year. I’ll check on my walk out on Friday.

Plants referenced:

  • Allium canadense – wild garlic
  • Allium tricoccum – wild leek
  • Anemone quinquefolia – wood anemone
  • Caltha palustris – marsh marigold
  • Cardamine concatenata – toothwort
  • Carex pensylvanica – Pennsylvania sedge
  • Carex sprengelii – Sprengel’s sedge
  • Carex woodii – Wood’s sedge
  • Caulophyllum thalictroides – blue cohosh
  • Claytonia virginica – spring beauty
  • Enemion biternatum – false rue-anemone
  • Erythronium albidum – white trout lily
  • Erythronium americanum – yellow trout lily
  • Galium circaezens – broad-leaved bedstraw
  • Mertensia virginica – Virginia bluebells
  • Quercus macrocarpa – bur oak
  • Ranunculus hispidus – bristly buttercup
  • Sanguinaria canadensis – bloodroot
  • Smilax ecirrhata – upright carrion flower
  • Thalictrum thalictroides – rue-anemone
  • Trillium grandiflorum – great white trillium
  • Trillium recurvatum – prairie trillium
  • Uvularia grandiflora – large-flowered bellwort
  • Viola pubescens – yellow violet
  • Viola sororia – wood violet

Image from: Bitzer RJ, Shaw KC. 1979(80). Territorial behavior of the red admiral, Vanessa atalanta (L.) (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae). The Journal of research on the Lepidoptera. 18: 36–49. Shared by the Smithsonian Libraries and Biodiversity Heritage Library under Creative Commons license BY-NC-SA 4.0.

From snow to Dutchman’s breeches in four days

This week was exhilarating: snow on Monday, and then temperatures warming through the week. Everything seems poised to flower within the next week or so.

Sunday one week ago we had five inches of snow. I’m not a weather watcher, and it caught me by surprise, right in the middle of April. By Monday morning the snow had started to melt, but it was still several inches thick in the East Woods. The mayapples stood in bunches, like passengers waiting for the bus in a blizzard, coats wrapped tightly under their chins, stiff, silent. The white fawn lilies were half-buried, but their leaf tips were spiky atop the surface of the snow. False mermaid clustered under fallen logs and at the bases of the trees, where the snow had melted down a bit or not accumulated in the first place. Only the spring beauty gave the impression of having been beaten down by the snow; perhaps not set back, but disappointed, slowed a bit. Spring beauty is lovely, but it is not strong.

Monday afternoon, much of the snow had melted. Rachel saw mourning cloak butterflies in the garden. By Tuesday morning, the snow had almost all melted away. At sunrise the field sparrows and robins and song sparrows were all going strong, and by an hour later I was hearing towhees. On the north-facing slope overlooking the frog pond, patches of snow about the size of a boot print were nestled at base of every third tree, downslope, protected from the sun. There were no frogs calling, but a ruby crowned kinglet insistently sang and sang from down near the pond, where a pair of wood ducks were coming in for a landing. Botanizing, eyes on the ground, I stumbled upon a Cooper’s hawk that had caught a flicker. As raptors will do, the bird sized me up before flying off with its quarry, low through the trees, leaving a cloud of feathers in the middle of the chipped trail. When Rachel and I met for lunch that day, we saw bumblebees and painted ladies.

The burned woods have turned green with lawns of trout lily and Virginia waterleaf, whose leaves have expanded rapidly in the past few days. Everything has gone nuts with the melting snow and warm temperatures. The blue-green tips of Carex hirtifolia and the burgundy-based Carex woodii shoots are nearly three inches tall. Pennsylvania sedge has started to flower, only the stigmas visible, whitish filaments emerging from the dark scales at the bases of the inflorescences, sinuous, arching inward near the tips. Inflorescence spikes are up on the Sprengel’s sedge, but still closed. Carex sparganioides shoots are almost as big around as lead pencils. Jacob’s ladder forms bunches in the drier, more open areas of the woods. Some Asteraceae (zigzag goldenrod?) is coming up here and there at the north edge of the spruce plot. Hepatica is still flowering, and the spring foliage has started opening. Common wood violet leaves started unrolling along the edges of the trails and at the bases of trees at the beginning of the week, and by Friday morning they were in bloom. American elm has come into fruit. Early meadow-rue leaves are stacked like hands of playing cards, the margins purple, the floral buds packed as densely as the flowers on grape hyacinth. Blue cohosh stems arch like dancers. Foliage of wood anemone is about 3 inches high and glossy; foliage of bristly buttercup is sprawling. Dutchman’s breeches opened for business this week. The sea of Virginia bluebells at the far east end of the East Woods before the power lines is about to bloom. Ridged backs of the ironwood leaves have gone from just pushing out of the buds to being out, still folded, a little larger than a grain of orzo. Buckthorn leaves have grown to the size of mouse’s ears.

Thursday morning the American toads started singing in the slough behind the local elementary school. In our warm spring of 2017, toads were singing in this same slough on April 15, so perhaps this year is on track from the toad standpoint, even if the wildflowers are lagging. In the East Woods, ironwood catkins were descending. Sugar maple leaves were expanding in the understory (not yet on the grown trees) and the beltlike cotyledons were snapping out of the seeds. Wild ginger leaves were fully out of the soil and spreading, quarter-sized cotyledons were spread wide on seedlings of great waterleaf. Toothwort flowers were opening—they seem to me to be particularly slow this year, but maybe it is my imagination—and whorls of leaves on the annual cleavers were as big around as a fifty-cent piece. There were slugs climbing the false mermaid and earthworms writhing on the sidewalks. In the wetlands beneath the power lines at the east end of the Arboretum, chorus frogs and peepers and American toads were singing together while a belted kingfisher crackled overhead.

Friday I came in to find the ravine sloping down into the woods just beyond the east edge of the oak and maple collections awash with green. Along its shoulders grew an enormous colony of Dutchman’s breeches in full bloom. I found fourteen species in the understory on the east-facing slope of the ravine: a matrix of false mermaid with wild garlic up to the middle of my shins, wild leeks fully expanded, toothwort in early flower, Carex rosea not yet flowering, wild geranium, dogtooth lilies coming into flower, wood anemone, bristly buttercup near the base of the slope, prairie trillium, mayapples unfurling, big-flowered trillium about to flower, spring beauty. And of course the Dutchman’s breeches. Elsewhere in the woods was foliage of sweet cicely and herb Robert, boot-high Canada bluegrass, shoots of Solomon’s seal eight inches tall, leaves just starting to spread open. Peachfuzz was evident on the rosettes of Carex hirtifolia from several feet away. A patch of fleshy scurfy twiglet was sprouting from the wood chips.

On my walk out on Friday I saw several mourning cloaks moving around among the ruby-crowned kinglets fly-catching in the shin-high wild hyacinth foliage and the brown creepers on the tree trunks (I think I saw one last week as well but didn’t get a good look… how long have they been in town?). Bur oak and Hill’s oak end buds were swelling. Floral buds had started forming on the wood anemone. Trout lilies were flowering along the edges of the trail. Marsh marigold was in bloom. The spring beauty was in full bloom under a Quercus x jackiana in the oak collection.

There are a couple of weeks like this each year when I find it almost impossible to keep up. I walk and take pictures, write in my notebook, try to get every name in there, to not forget the state of the leaves and buds and flowers, and I feel I’m just storing stuff up. I recalled as I walked in on Friday a passage from J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey in which Zooey is worrying over his sister, but to his sister, kind of berating her over the phone: “As a matter of simple logic, there’s no difference at all, that I can see, between the man who’s greedy for material treasure—or even intellectual treasure—and the man who’s greedy for spiritual treasure. As you say, treasure’s treasure… and it seems to me that ninety per cent of all the world-hating saints in history were just as acquisitive and unattractive, basically, as the rest of us are.” And what am I doing? Laying up treasure. The way I walk through the woods scribbling down names and conditions of individual plants is essentially piling up dimes and quarters.

And yet it makes me so happy, all this counting and recording and writing it down, like when I was 24 and just realizing that this was what liked to do: catch some little thing about the natural world that I hadn’t noticed and describe it. This is the season for stockpiling observations, laying aside notes and recollections for later in the summer when I can think about it more clearly, or for when I’m 98 and don’t get around so well. This was an exceptionally good week to be doing it.

Plants referenced

  • Acer saccharum – sugar maple
  • Allium canadense – wild garlic
  • Allium tricoccum – wild leek
  • Anemone quinquefolia – wood anemone
  • Asarum canadense – wild ginger
  • Caltha palustris – marsh marigold
  • Camassia scilloides – wild hyacinth
  • Cardamine concatenata – toothwort
  • Carex hirtifolia – a hairy-leaved sedge, the hairiest thing in the woods right now
  • Carex pensylvanica – Pennsylvania sedge
  • Carex rosea – curly-styled sedge… maybe. It’s what you may have learned as Carex convoluta, whereas what you may have learned as Carex rosea is now Carex radiata. Confusing! Give a holler and I explain it to you. It’s a good story
  • Carex sparganioides – bur-reed sedge
  • Carex sprengelii – Sprengel’s sedge, but he doesn’t own it. You do, if you know it (think of Allen Ginsburg: “Who digs Los Angeles is Los Angeles”… so it is with sedges)
  • Carex woodii – sometimes called lovely sedge, which isn’t fair, because they are all lovely
  • Caulophyllum thalictroides – blue cohosh
  • Claytonia virginica – spring beauty
  • Dicentra cucullaria – Dutchman’s breeches
  • Erythronium albidum – fawn lily, dog-tooth violet, trout lily
  • Floerkea proserpinacoides – false mermaid
  • Galium aparine – cleavers, annual bedstraw
  • Geranium maculatum – wild geranium
  • Geranium robertianum – herb Robert
  • Hepatica acutiloba – Hepatica
  • Hydrophyllum appendiculatum – great waterleaf
  • Hydrophyllum virginianum – Virginia waterleaf
  • Lemna minor – duckweed
  • Mertensia virginica – Virginia bluebells
  • Osmorhiza claytonii – sweet cicely
  • Ostrya virginiana – ironwood
  • Poa compressa – Canada bluegrass
  • Podophyllum peltatum – mayapple
  • Polemonium reptans – Jacob’s ladder
  • Polygonatum biflorum – Solomon’s seal
  • Ranunculus hispidus – bristly buttercup
  • Rhamnus cathartica – buckthorn
  • Solidago flexicaulis – zigzag goldenrod
  • Thalictrum dioicum – early meadow-rue
  • Trillium grandiflorum – big-flowered trillium
  • Trillium recurvatum – prairie trillium
  • Ulmus americana – American elm
  • Viola sororia – common wood violet

A property like this

A 70-degree day on Monday, a week without freezing temperatures, and everything is barreling ahead in the woods.

In the backyard the garlic is several inches high. It snuck up on me, until I noticed Wednesday morning that it had gone from nothing to forming darts in the garden beds. I hate to miss a day outside right now. February, I can read for a few days and not worry about it. The world is moving around in February–squirrels dart out to get food and scamper back up their tree, seeds scutter across the surface of the snow–but it make a lot of headway. Now, on the other hand, everything is moving forward, with or without us. I was occupied for a few days at the beginning of the week, and I got an email from a colleague Monday evening with photos of prairie trillium foliage and Hepatica in bloom. The day was in the low 70s, and it looks as though all the woodland wildflowers gained a couple of inches. This week, the forest floor became hairy with false mermaid. It is everywhere, this plant that I used to think of as a rarity (in Dane County, I guess it is). My bike ride in is like a trip along the spine of a chia pet. The onions lining the maintenance road are up to the top of my calves. The redbud is not yet in flower, but the floral buds on the branches are swelling up like moles on the side of your neck. Jewelweed seedlings are pushing out nickel-sized cotyledons. Wild leek leaves are flattening out and starting to resemble dogs’ tongues. Sugar maple buds are expanded about as far as they can go without shattering, the scales leathery-brown at the tips, black near the base, the leaves papery emerging from the scales. Ironwood leaves are pushing their tipmost bud scales off. American beech end buds are about an inch and a half long, sharp-pointed, the scale margins whitish-translucent, leaves just peeking out. Black walnut leaves are stretching their legs, sickly yellow-green. Black cherry buds are as long as my pinky nail. Buckthorn leaves are a centimeter long already, adorable, if I didn’t know what they were.

On my bike-ride in on Thursday morning, I stopped beside the road just east of the spruce plot, where I found these things:

Twelve of these thirteen species I hadn’t seen any evidence of this spring before that stop. I went from there to the Big Rock Visitor Station and walked east, past fresh leaves on the silky wild rye and prickly gooseberry with leaves bigger than my thumbnail. This time a week earlier they were emerging tentatively. There were basal leaves of willowherb in the watercourse that passes under road. I turned south into the spruce plot, skirting the west edge of it. A clone of mayapples stood shin-high, umbrellalike, still closed, some barely starting to open, the tips white against the green leaves. On the south facing slopes of the ravines, the false rue anemone bore pale floral buds, while the true rue anemone was in glorious full bloom. Spring beauty petals were emerging from the buds. Some of the Dutchman’s breeches were looking particularly pantsy. Pennsylvania sedge was tipped with dark-scaled inflorescences, the scales white on the margins. Soon they will be fringed with yellow anthers. Watch for them, little flags in the forest understory.

I walked out through the maple collection. There were phoebes and song sparrows calling. I passed yarrow leaves and Kentucky bluegrass along the service road, then I stopped at the smallest of the three little ponds nestled into the kettles between the heritage trail and the road. I poked along the edge looking for things coming up. In the water I thought I saw duckweed, pale, floating to the surface. As I leaned in closer, I realized I was seeing not duckweed but sedge fruits, the dark achenes inside shrouded in the whitish perigynia. They were flat, pointed at the tip, thin scales, the fruit of Carex tribuloides, which happened to be greening up and hanging over the edge of the pond. The perigynia were massed up on top of the white oak leaves suspended beneath the pond surface, worn down by water and time. Further along the edge of the pond, fowl manna grass was brightening up the shoreline and the reed canary grass was shin-high. A white-throated sparrow sang.

Saturday, Rachel and I took the dog to Maple Grove Forest Preserve and found wild ginger leaves cutting their way up through the leaf litter, still folded. The wild leeks had spread, and I think they are more abundant this year than I’ve seen in the past two. There were a few flowers on the false rue anemone, and the exotic Siberian squill was flowering here and there all through the woods. Trout lily leaves were unfolding to show the mottling on the inner surfaces. The dog and I returned this morning in the snow to find white flowers about to open on a few of the trout lilies. Blue cohosh shoots were growing to six inches, and I found a shorter one with floral buds forming greenish at the top. Carex hirtifolia is three inches long in blue-green bunches along the trails. The burdock leaves are about as big as playing cards.

As I’m writing this the snow has turned to rain and back to snow, the dog and the boys are sleeping, and I’m thinking over a public symposium my colleagues Pat Herendeen and Rick Ree and I hosted yesterday at the Field Museum, on the topic of gene flow in plants. The recurring theme? Genes are shuttling back and forth between species on almost every branch of the tree of life. Yet we still look around and see so much diversity, all these friends of ours coming back in the woods spring after spring, and every one of them its own individual. Blue cohosh. Pennsylvania sedge. Ironwood. We still think of species as individuals. I think everyone in the room agreed that this is a big question for the coming decade: Why do we still have so many different species when the potential for gene flow is so high, and gene flow is going on all the time? And yet we do.

For good measure, I’ll leave with you with the poem “Swallows,” by Kathleen Jamie, whom I learned about Friday afternoon from Josh Mabie:

I wish my whole battened
heart were a property
like this, with swallows
in every room–so at ease

they twitter and preen
from the picture frames
like an audience in the gods
before an opera

and in the mornings
wheel above my bed
in a mockery of pity
before winging it

up the stairwell
to stream out into light

Enjoy the week.

Plants referenced:

  • Acer saccharum – sugar maple
  • Achillea millefolium – yarrow
  • Allium tricoccum – wild leek
  • Arctium sp. – burdock
  • Carex albursina – white bear sedge
  • Carex hirtifolia – hairy sedge (is this really a common name?)
  • Carex pensylvanica – Pennsylvania sedge
  • Carex tribuloides – sometimes called awl-fruited sedge, but most sedges don’t really have common names
  • Caulophyllum thalictroides – blue cohosh
  • Cercis canadensis – redbud
  • Claytonia virginica – spring beauty
  • Cystopteris protrusa – lowland brittle fern
  • Dicentra cucullaria – Dutchman’s breeches
  • Elymus villosus – silky wild rye
  • Enemion biternatum – false rue anemone
  • Epilobium sp. – willowherb
  • Erythronium albidum – white trout lily, adder’s tongue
  • Fagus americana – American beech
  • Floerkea proserpinacoides – false mermaid
  • Geranium maculatum – wild geranium
  • Glyceria sp. – fowl manna grass
  • Hydrophyllum appendiculatum – great waterleaf
  • Hydrophyllum virginianum – Virginia waterleaf
  • Impatiens capensis – jewelweed
  • Juglans nigra – black walnut
  • Osmorhiza longistylis – aniseroot
  • Ostrya virginiana – ironwood
  • Phalaris arundinacea – reed canary grass
  • Phlox pilosa – woodland fern
  • Poa pratensis – Kentucky bluegrass
  • Podophyllum peltatum – mayapple
  • Prunus serotina – black cherry
  • Ranunculus fascicularis – early buttercup
  • Rhamnus cathartica – buckthorn
  • Ribes cynosbati – prickly gooseberry
  • Sanguinaria canadensis – bloodroot
  • Scilla siberica – Siberian squill
  • Thalictrum thalictroides – meadow rue
  • Trillium recurvatum – prairie trillium, bloody butcher

Geared to changing weather

We’re in the first week of April, hanging for a moment before the pandemonium of warm temperatures and warblers and spring wildflowers blooming around every corner.

Spring in the forest understory recalls weekend mornings of my childhood, when I would wake up early on a Saturday morning to get to the Menominee River while there was no one out yet, while my parents were perhaps turning over in bed upstairs, resisting getting up for a few more minutes. That hour of quiet before the day started was entirely my own, and the river was my own, for that hour. Soon the grown-ups would be up, and then it was everyone’s. But for the time being, I, like the forest understory before the leaves emerge on the tree, had the world to myself.

We’re in the first week of April, hanging for a moment before the pandemonium of warm temperatures and warblers and spring wildflowers blooming around every corner. The false mermaid is sparsely everywhere. It’s putting on height right now, scraggly in the bare soil of ephemeral watercourses, overtopping the mottled sheets of oak and sugar maple leaves. In a week or so it will carpet the woods. Spring beauty floral buds are clustered tight as chipmunks’ fists, and the foliage is fully grown. Last week, I hadn’t found it flowering yet, perhaps because it was still too cold. I worried that it had tired itself out by starting to flower in December… I’m relieved to find that I was probably wrong. In a week or two we’ll find beds of it. The sedges are greening up. Carex rosea and C. radiata and C. pensylvanica form bouquets of narrow shoots an inch tall or so. Sprengel’s sedge shoots are as long as my pinky, stout for now; by midsummer its leaves will bend over and crease in the middle, and it will be a sprawling mess. Virginia bluebell leaves are swelling up, and their petioles are starting to show… a week ago, they were just clusters of orbiculate blades. Trout-lily leaves are a couple of inches tall, grasslike, mottling barely evident unless you open the infolded leaves. In some, the corm is exposed at the soil’s surface, and it really does look like a tooth. I’m not sure it looks like a dog tooth as much as a child’s tooth, but perhaps “dogtooth violet” sounds better than “child’s tooth violet.” A couple more weeks now the trout-lily flowers will be floating at shoelace level along the trails.

The trees awaken more slowly than the understory. Basswood buds have begun to swell, but the leaves must be delicious, for under the trees there are none to be found. One basswood along the Heritage Trail has been scraped up by a buck. Silver maples in our neighborhood went from flowers just opening on March 31 to fully flowering on April 3. Some of the shrubs are a bit faster: first leaves started appearing on gooseberry and black raspberry last weekend. Along the edge of the trail are last year’s puffballs and bird’s nest fungi. Scraping the leaves aside in search of Dutchman’s breeches on Wednesday, I crushed a stump puffball that had swelled up in August of last year, and still a cloud of brown spores floated off as the puffball broke open. Last year’s dark leaves of C. jamesii and C. albursina are still more prominent than the young shoots beside them. Evergreen white avens leaves as big as the leaves of potted begonias are resting here and there on the leaf litter.

The warm days and cold nights at the beginning of the week frothed up the upper surface of the soil and then froze it in place, forming ice crystals several millimeters long that sloughed off at a touch. Below the icy crust grew gardens of seedlings, and white fungal mycelia spread across the moist, granular soil surface beneath. But that may be the end of it, because after Monday night, temperatures didn’t go below freezing again, and Wednesday morning was sweatshirt-cool but beautiful. Spring peepers and chorus frogs were singing from the kettle ponds on both sides of the south loop of the Heritage trail. The chorus frogs in the pond to the north seemed to be cooler, droning a slow, methodical rattle in comparison to the higher pitched creaking of the frogs in the southern pond. I was reminded of a lecture I once heard in which an experiment was performed on pairs of frogs. One was warmed, its potential mate cooled, and because of the temperature difference between them, the female did not recognize the male’s song. Could the temperature difference on the opposite sides of this hill serve to isolate the populations, or at least reduce gene flow between them?

What else? Tree swallows are patrolling the birdhouses in the field west of Big Rock. Poison hemlock is spreading out in the marshes where the false mermaid leaves off. Reed canary grass is greening up. Golden Alexanders are coming up in the garden. I found my first tick of the season on Wednesday, and a colleague reports that she found three the previous week. Gnats are bouncing around at the south edge of the spruce plot. I find myself this week waiting to see what happens next, seeing if I can remember. Where is it that I saw the hepatica last year? When do the yellow-rumped warblers show up? Is that the lisping of a golden-crowned kinglet or some other little bird I’ve forgotten? My enjoyment of spring is tied up with the joy of recalling things I thought I’d forgotten: an old name, a friend from high school, a trip we took… then a photo falls out of the album and suddenly I’m back there again. It’s the same thing in the woods, with wildflowers I know from New York and Wisconsin and Michigan. I have been reading David Yaffe’s Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell the past two weeks, and Joni Mitchell’s extravagent and ambitious “Paprika Plains” has been running through my mind:

It fell from midnight skies
It drummed on the galvanized
In the washroom, women tracked the rain
Up to the make-up mirror
Liquid soap and grass
And Jungle Gardenia crash
On Pine-Sol and beer
It’s stifling in here
I’ve got to get some air
I’m going outside to get some air

Back in my hometown
They would have cleared the floor
Just to watch the rain come down!
They’re such sky oriented people —
Geared to changing weather
I’m floating off in time
I’m floating off
I’m floating off in time.

It’s late as I write this. The boys and the dog and I have been running in different directions today, and everyone’s wired, having a hard time falling asleep. I take the dog out one last time, and we stand together beside the house in the warm, damp night. We are listening to teenagers chatting several houses away. We are smelling the next-door neighbor’s spent fire. The dog is paying attention to something across the street. Then I realize I am hearing chorus frogs floating faintly in from the south, from blocks away. Where are they? Why haven’t I ever heard them before from our house? For just a moment, at the end of this first week of April, I feel as though I were lifting up above the neighborhood, following the ditches and creeks that fill up along the roads and disappear into storm sewers all over town, floating off to springs of the past 30 years, all a little different, all similar.

Plants referenced:

  • Acer saccharum – sugar maple
  • Carex albursina – white bear sedge
  • Carex jamesii – James’s sedge
  • Carex pensylvanica – Pennsylvania sedge
  • Carex radiata
  • Carex rosea
  • Carex sprengelii – Sprengel’s sedge
  • Claytonia virginica – spring beauty
  • Conium maculatum – poison hemlock
  • Erythronium albidum – trout-lily
  • Floerkea prosperpinacoides – false mermaid
  • Geum canadense – white avens
  • Mertensia virginica – Virginia bluebells
  • Phalaris arundinacea – reed canary grass
  • Ribes cynosbati – gooseberry (there are others; this is the one referenced in this post)
  • Rubus occidentalis – black raspberry
  • Tilia americana – basswood
  • Zizia aurea – golden Alexanders