Signs of spring

Spring is here, really it is. You just have to know where to look for it (a little appreciation for subtlety helps as well in very early spring).

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In my garden, native hazelnut (Corylus americana) is in full bloom, but you have to look hard to see it. The female flowers are less than 1/4″ high. The little red tufted thing in the photo is a female flower, and the males are the catkins you see hanging down at the left. The catkins release yellow pollen that floats on the breeze. As is true of most plants with very inconspicuous flowers (think grasses), hazelnuts are wind pollinated. These lovely shrubs produce nuts in August or September that squirrels and other critters immediately devour and leaves that turn a clear lemon yellow in fall. The shrubs grow to about 12′ high but can be kept somewhat shorter by pruning. They are quite easy to grow in any well-drained soil in part or full sun.

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In the Thielke Arboretum in Glen Rock, signs of spring are everywhere. Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) is coming into bloom. The purple cones in the photo are the flowers. They’ll open soon and provide early spring food for pollinating flies and bees. The bright green leaves will follow in a couple of weeks, turning the wet woods emerald. Skunk cabbage is a wetland indicator plant–when you see it, you can be quite sure you’re in a wetland.

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Also in bloom in the Arboretum is vernal witch hazel (Haemamelis vernalis), a large shrub native to the Ozarks that blooms in early spring or late winter. Our native witch hazel, Haemamelis virginica, is a small tree that blooms in late fall.

And finally, here’s a little ecology quiz: It’s not hard to find examples in nature of plants that bloom in either very early spring or very late fall, like hazelnuts and witch hazel. These out-of-season bloomers tend to be less showy than flowers that appear in warmer weather–why do you think that’s the case? and what’s the advantage to the plant of blooming when very few other plants are blooming? what’s the risk? how does the plant benefit the entire ecosystem that surrounds it?

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