Spring uncoils

Mourning Cloak Butterfly off Aunt Molly Road

"So, how're you doing?"

"What's new?"

Not wanting to answer "not much" to questions like these, but completely at a loss to suddenly produce a succinct summary of my past few days-to-years, I'll usually answer "Oh, it's a busy spring/summer/fall/winter". This is pretty much true, and, followed by some commentary on the season's weather, usually deflects the conversation to other topics (or stifles it altogether, oops).

What I'd like to say, but have a hard time thinking of when put on the spot, are many of the things that follow... my "spring-in-review" for 2010, as it were.

Crazy spring! Hot weather! Plants doing their thing way-early!

An early heat wave in late March caused some very early blooming. This spring beauty, first of the year for me, was open along the roadbank of Aunt Molly Road on March 18th. Last year, the first open flower I saw was a full week later, on March 25th.

On March 24th, a volunteer at the nursery asked me where she and her husband could go to see round-lobed hepatica that weekend. I wrote back that they were too early, and to recommend the Musconetcong Gorge Reservation, where the hepaticas range from white to deep azure limned in ivory.

Later that day, I checked the hepaticas on the wooded slope near home, and--my mistake--they were in full bloom, little furry flowerheads nodding every which way over last year's lobed leaves

April 4th, Rachel and I visited the Musconetcong Gorge with her parents, and the preceding photo of hepatica, as well as the following, of bloodroot, is from that visit.

Another early bloomer was trout lily. Heatwaves continued into mid April, and the hot April sun blanched trout lily's normally spotted leaves quickly this year, and flowering seemed to last a very short period. The first photo, below, is from April 7th of this year; the following, April 21st of last year...

Rachel studied a Linden tree this spring. I accompanied her to the tree on April 7th and took this photo of the emerged leaves. Leaf-out happened extremely early this year, maybe two to three weeks earlier than usual.

Possibly in keeping with the dry conditions of this spring, we kept finding early saxifrage and pussytoes when going on hikes. I'm sure it had a lot to do with the dry slopes, ridges, and barrens we were frequenting, but still... before this year, I knew early saxifrage as a very occasional plant of streamside rock crevices.

The new xeric sites we discovered in the area (a steep shaley hemlock ravine in hillsborough; the St. Michael's shale barrens/oak savannah; and a cliff-like community overlooking the Stony Brook in Princeton) were full of early saxifrage, and I came to know it as a big, tough cliffhanger that can get around. I look forward to collecting seeds this year and trying to grow this plant... I have little idea what the seeds will be like. It would be great in a mixed native groundcover with pennsylvania sedge and some other low-growing plants.

Pussytoes flowers

I was happy to take this flattering picture of the young leaves of a hawthorn tree growing in the open woods behind our house. I know that, in some areas, hawthorns are a plentiful component of early-successional and hedgerow communities. They are frequent in the Catskills, and in the pre-deer-overpopulation "thickets" of older field guides (aka shangri-la, where they are accompanied by such rarities as hearts-a-bursting, and probably gentians too). But in this part of New Jersey, I see them as rare components of open woods, or along floodplains (frequently several species in the riparian areas, one of which may be an introduced species).

A shaggy old tree with its arms full of tropical blooms is one of the most-anticipated events of spring for me-- hickory budbreak. Who would think that the tough, slow, eccentric and armored hickory would release its leaves to the sunlit world in such a blaze of diaphanous red-orange-gold?

This is what the hickory's "bloom" looks like when our overabundant deer get there first. This sapling probably just lost a half-season's worth of growth.

Sorry for the morbid note above. In good news... it seemed like a phenomenal year for beech seedling germination. They're everywhere, albeit hard to recognize as such with their earlobe cotyledons under a little tuft of true leaves.

I remember that once, Jim asked why there were so many even aged beech saplings in some woods or other. I forget who he asked, but Emile at NJCF batted right back that after (or during) the wet year of 1980-something-or-other, there was phenomenal recruitment of beech in the woods, and that many of the saplings we see in the NJ woods date from then. And that an older cohort dates from the cool, moist summer when Krakatoa erupted.

Wow, I was impressed.

At any rate, I wonder if the great snow cover we had this winter led to the seemingly large crop of beech seedlings this year, and whether they'll survive this wacky spring to become another "cohort" in the woods.

Last year or the year before, a big black birch behind our house blew over. I was upset-- I love black birches, and two others in view of our house had recently come down, big prone trunks with little jagged broken roots suddenly exposed.

I particularly loved the way that the seafoam green lichens would illuminate against the silverpurple bark of the black birch during and after rains.

See the photo above? That's a little tree cavity, not a big one where a branch tore off and an owl might roost, but a little tunnel in the exposed root system of that black birch. One evening, Rachel and I watched a bumblebee fly right into that tunnel to spend the night.

That bumblebee finding a home in the prone old birch made me feel much better about the whole thing.

Rootball of the fallen birch

I'm watching elms this year. Sometimes I lead hikes and point out elm trees. "I thought they were gone", many people say to me, because they have heard about dutch elm disease. I explain what I read in Bernd Heinrich's book, that the elms are reproducing younger and younger, and the disease tends to strike at a certain time in their maturity.

A few weeks ago, a friend asked me to identify a tree as we walked. He nearly had me stumped, until I realized that it was a full-grown, canopy-dominating elm. Its bark looked sort of like the teenage-phase tupelo bark, before tupelo gets its snakeskin.

At any rate, I seem to always miss the moment in spring when elms release their round, winged samaras (see green ones, above). This year, I'll be watching-- especially near that big old survivor that nearly had me stumped.

In the same floodplain as the old elm, I was drawn to a downed branch with the flowers of a tree usually too tall to see the blooms of-- Sycamore. Look at that red button with golden fuzzy leaves emerging beneath it. I had no idea!

Squirrel corn, an endangered plant in NJ. Come on people, stop fucking up!

One of my favorite spring spots is the OSMUNDA SWAMP upstream from the pond near our house. It's a little wet hollow in a hill with cinnamon, royal, and interrupted fern (Osmunda full house!), plus christmas, maidenhair, and new york fern (and probably some others I'm forgetting). In the photo above, the great hairy coiled fists of cinnamon fern are punching up from the ground. Soon, the fronds will unfurl, surrounding a golden-cinnamon spike of spore-powder.

The osmunda swamp is a little dinosaur-era relic just down the street. The ancient relatives of these ancient ferns are what compressed down to create our fossil fuels. When we finish mining them, and release all of their aeons-old stored carbon back into the atmosphere, New Jersey may once again become a hot, humid swampworld with a climate much like that which supported brontosaurus and treeferns alike. And then, the Osmundas will rise again!

On a side-note, I thought up the above scenario while idly speculating whether the spirit-that-moves-in-all-things moves in plastic. I was driving (of course), and just then the plastic steering wheel expressed this to me... that the fossil fuels I was burning were its ancient brethren, and, that when I burned enough, they intended to inherit the earth from us two-leggers.

I suppose I could have expressed the above in a way that made me seem like less of a kook, but so be it.

Mystery insect on native rose leaves