Early spring

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Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucularia) are in full bloom right now, and the plants are finally spreading in my garden. And the rabbits didn’t eat the flowers this year—yet!

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The sepals of flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) are beginning to enlarge, hinting of the beauty to come.

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Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) has reached full bloom, its tiny yellow-green flowers lighting up the garden.

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There’s nothing quite as lovely are serviceberry (Amelanchier) buds in spring. Today they look like this; tomorrow they’ll be almost all quite and will look like strings of pearls.

Random thoughts about a very early spring

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We hope to see some of these magnificent, almost-gone-extinct creatures soon. (Photo of Galapagos tortoise from National Geographic.com)

The first crocuses, the tiny yellow ones, are blooming in my garden, and  on the first native flowers to bloom in my garden, the native hazelnuts, the tiny female flowers are just visible. They’ll be in full bloom tomorrow, at least three weeks earlier than usual.

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Female flowers of native hazelnuts (Corylus americana) are bright red and very tiny. The plant is wind pollinated.

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Male hazelnut flowers are borne on these long yellow catkins. They sway gently and release their pollen with the slightest wind.

Other natives in bloom right now? Look for vernal witchhazel (technically native to the deep South) and pussy willow in wet places–you should be able to see both in the Glen Rock Arboretum right now. Certainly the swamp cabbage is up. If you’re lucky enough to have a shady, moist spot, you could be waiting for bloodroot and Virginia bluebells to burst into bloom.

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Swamp cabbage in bloom in the Glen Rock Arboretum.

It looks like I’ve succeed in killing a patch of lesser celandine that I mistakenly planted, thinking it was marsh marigold, about twenty years ago. (Luckily my soil is very dry. If I had planted it in a wet spot, it would have taken over my whole backyard. This patch was only about six feet wide.) I smothered it. For two years, as it emerged in early spring I piled leaves on top of it and then pulled out any new growth that managed to break through. It should be out now, but I don’t see a trace of it. Two years of smothering or persistent removal of growth seems to be enough to kill even very tough plants like hosta.

We leave for the Galapagos tomorrow, and the forecast calls for warm weather almost the whole time we’re away. So I watered my new trees thoroughly today, just in case. Keep an eye on any woody plants you put in last year–their roots will be in very active growth now, so they need lots of water during dry periods.

I  pulled at least two dozen tiny English ivy seedlings in my miniforest today. One of my neighbors has allowed icy to climb her trees, flower, and fruit. Only continual vigilance will keep it from engulfing the precious woodland that we planted twenty-one years ago.

The forest in spring, with dogwood in bloom.

Our miniforest in May, when the dogwood is in bloom. Everything you see was planted. This area was lawn when we moved into our house.

Enjoy this very early spring, but take some time to ponder its cause. Don’t do any more winter pruning, and get your vegetable seeds started! See you in two weeks.

Slowly, slowly

A cool spring is a long-lasting one. The cool temperatures mean that plants wake up slowly–which of course is delightful for ornamentals but annoying, to say the least, for food crops. I planted early spring greens on Aprill 3, and they’ve barely germinated. We had two very warm days early this week, which seemed to wake everything up, so that forsythia, magnolias, ornamental cherries, red maples, and other early bloomers came into full bloom. Then it got cold again, so they’re staying there. It’s quite lovely.

I don’t have any early bloomers as showy as a hybrid magnolia or cherry in my garden (the very early, very showy cherries and magnolias are all sterile hybrids of mostly Asian species), but I don’t lack for lovely spring-flowering shrubs. Right now, spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is in full bloom

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I’m pretty sure these are male flowers–if you look very closely, you can see the stamens. Go take a walk in a wet woodland this weekend, and the whole place will be lit up with these tiny flowers. In late summer, spicebush produces bright red berries that birds adore.

Serviceberry (Amelanchier) flowers are opening tantalizingly slowly.

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Compare this picture to one of the same branch taken last week. Notice how the individual flower buds are now visible.

A long, slow spring allows more time for savoring. Try to get out to the woods soon to enjoy it.

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?