I climbed the hillside and sat among pole after pole of tiny trousers, waving in the breeze of an April afternoon.
But for as long as I waited there on the leafy bank for her return, not one little laundress came to collect her things.
Where are these little half-dressed men of the spring forest? And why do they never wash their jackets?
Dutchman's Breeches, Dicentra cucullaria
Dutchman's Breeches, Dicentra cucullaria, is member of the fumitory family, and is an early blooming wildflower native to the northeastern deciduous woods. Its finely divided fern-like leaflets make it easy to confuse with a look-alike, Squirrel Corn, Dicentra canadensis, whose heart-shaped flowers have less flared spurs. Flowers of both may be tinted yellow as they emerge and become shades of white and faint pink.Bleeding Heart, Dicentra spectabilis, a popular and showier garden bloomer, is related.
It is said that the fumitory family (Latin fumus=smoke) is so named for the smoky appearance that the bluish cast leaves may give as they emerge from the ground.Yellow corydalis, another member of this family, blooms at the same time and shows the characteristically lacy, bluish cast leaves. Pale Corydalis, with its 2-colored pink and yellow flower has a more northern distribution.
Yellow Corydalis, Corydalis flavula
Pale Corydalis, Corydalis sempervirens, Voyageurs National Park, MN (leaves above, flower below)
I seldom worry that what is found in a day outdoors will not be in some way extraordinary. In early April, especially, when daily change makes the new of yesterday instantly old, I hate to miss even one day of it.
Sessile Trillium, Trillium sessile
Above the earth and from beneath its surface, life creeps back into a resting landscape. Birds cross the sky. Leaves burst from branches and flowers quickly fade. In a matter of days, the bare deciduous woods have become densely leafed-out and green.
Catching the bloom of the earliest wildflowers of spring, the ephemerals, in their race to flower and set seed in the few brief weeks of penetrating sunlight, is not a task for the timid—for to each part practice, must be added two parts luck. Brought back to life from their rest beneath the rich soil by warming ground, rainfall and increasing daylight, many get quickly to the business of blooms before their own leaves even emerge, using the reserves of energy held over winter in bulbs below ground. Others, with accelerated photosynthesis, manufacture carbohydrates at an incredibly fast rate, allowing great growth spurts in just several days. A bare, brown, leaf-covered bank can become dotted with white trout-lilies almost overnight. While days later, not one of their splayed petals remains.
Trout-lily before opening
The trail through Whipple State Nature Preserve leads immediately upward from a small parking pad just off the main road. Winding our way to the ridge atop the 30-foot dolomite cliffs, one flower appeared, then another.
(all photos click to enlarge)
How many minutes do you spend with each one?
What part of a fleeting life can you hold onto?
Never too many. Never enough.
Sunset at spring pond
Trout-lilies are early-blooming native wildflowers and members of the lily family, having 3 petals and 3 sepals and 1 or 2 brown/red-spotted strap-like leaves. Sometimes found in large colonies in undisturbed deciduous woods decades old, younger, single-leafed plants do not flower.White trout-lilies, Erythronium albidum, have flowers that are primarily white and tinged with varying degrees of blue and pink.
White Trout-lily broad pink tint on sepals, narrow band of pink on petals
The fallow fields along the Ohio River may be waiting for seed or plow, but they’re anything but empty on this early spring afternoon. Covered by a giant purple carpet, they glow from edge to edge with the bright, pink-lipped flowers and soft, fuzzy leaves of an alien mint, Purple Dead-nettle, that quickly moves in to these resting fields, leaving only a few toe holds for the most enterprising of others.
Purple Dead-nettle, Lamium purpureum
Field Pansy, Viola rafinesquei
Step into the ankle-deep magenta sea, wade past a few field pansies, their heads bobbing as they struggle to rise above the waves, and you’ll find its smallest residents happily riding the current, tails held high.
Mouse-tails, Myosurus minimus
They’re Mouse-tails, Myosurus minimus, a tiny native buttercup in this, its easternmost range. Barely more than a tuft of grass at first glance, these small plants have distinctive slender green flowers that elongate into the tail-like fruit as they mature.
Mouse-tails in fruit
But you’d never know they’re lurking there--like the quiet mouse that scurries through the rooms of my old house, and gives me just a glimpse of him when I have forgotten.
Henbit, Lamium amplexicaule
Another mint eagerly fills waste places along roadsides. It's Henbit, Lamium amplexicaule, whose leaves wrap the stem more closely and without stalks. Again, the bright pink, 2-lipped flower is striking to look at up close!
"He who hopes for spring with upturned eye never sees so small a thing as Draba. He who despairs of spring with downcast eye steps on it, unknowing. He who searches for spring with his knees in the mud finds it, in abundance."
— Aldo Leopold
For much of the world, the arrival of spring is a showy occasion. Like the young girls in brightly-colored, petticoated dresses, we expect the celebration of the season to wake us from winter with a visible alarm. While the temperatures dance back and forth across the freezing line and imperceptible changes slowly unfurl, we struggle to nail spring to the calendar, define it by the things we can see.
We mark it boldly, watching for blooms from tulips and daffodils, as if with loud proclamation we might tether it a bit more securely.
But nature’s spring is far more subtle. Her change is quiet--hidden beneath the tangle of faded stems on a barren field, softly peeking past layers of leaves on the treed hillside of a southern slope. By the time we realize it’s here, a good portion of spring is already gone.
American Columbo first leaves of spring
Last weekend I walked with Jim McCormac and the Midwest Native Plant Society in search of those earliest and seldom seen, quietly productive, first-bloomers of spring--the understated, perhaps under-appreciated little mustards. In Adams County, rich in botanical diversity because of its unique combination of geography and geology, we would find them. And, as is often the case, the least spectacular place (especially if you’re driving past at 55 mph) held the greatest botanical find.
Stepping carefully from our vehicles, we fanned out into a small, local cemetery, stooping low, eyes combing the ground in search of our conquest, the tiny Little Whitlow-grass, Draba brachycarpa. This neat little mustard stands barely an inch high and can easily be lost in the taller trimmed grass surrounding the grave sites. Happy to settle in to the continually disturbed sandy soil in this one of just a few known deposits along the Ohio River, dozens of these small, rare mustard plants jockey for space, while prickly pear cactus and earthstars delight in the southernmost Ohio sand. The hardest part is finding the first one.
Draba brachycarpa, photo courtesy Tricia West
“Is this it?” A small plant is gently isolated, swept clean of broken stems and weathered leaves covering it, basal leaves examined, stem and flower head scrutinized. “YES!” And the group drops to their knees, each chin on the ground, as only a mustard can be appreciated.
Draba brachycarpa, in bloom photo courtesy Tricia West
Soon, the hidden treasure is spotted all around, some still in their delicate white flower, most already in fruit—stubby, purple pods (brachycarpa=short pod) that can barely be seen unless you’re nose-to-nose with the little Draba. At first glance, it might seem we're still waiting for spring. Look closely, stoop low. If you're a little mustard, spring has already happened.
Draba brachycarpa, Little Whitlow-grass in fruit
The genus Draba accounts for 365 species in the mustard family (Cruciferae or Brassicaceae) worldwide, characterized by a 4-part flower whose petals stand at right angles to each other, resembling a cross. Another important diagnostic feature of those in the mustard family is the fruit, a silique, an often long, (except when it’s short!) pod-like form, filled with seeds which easily tumble forth when dry.
Draba verna, Early Whitlow-grass is growing in large patches on my lawn. Each of the 4 petals is deeply divided, giving the appearance of 8.
Winning image for the Ohio Wildlife Legacy Stamp competition!
The 2012 OWLStamp will be available for sale March 1, 2012 through the Ohio Department of Natural Resources website and nature organizations across the state. Proceeds of the OWLStamp benefit wildlife conservation, research & education projects within the state of Ohio! I'm thrilled to have provided the winning image for such a wonderful program!
The Adventures of Red Canoe
Come along in Red Canoe as she explores the quiet backwater of Ohio's State Parks and the scenic streams and rivers of the Midwest. Discover the beauty hidden beyond the water's edge, quietly waiting, past access points, often only inches deep!
Grabbing every minute I can find to be outside--walking in it, sleeping in it ... breathing it in. The natural world has so much beauty to uncover.
It is my hope that by capturing my experiences with nature and by sharing the richness it adds to an ordinary life, others may discover the greatest gift waiting just outside their door.
A regularly appearing feature, "Have you seen..." takes a closer, more patient look at things usually not seen in a flattering light.Take a look!
The Sweetness of Spring
Each spring, as winter lessens its grip and days warm with the first fragrant breezes of a new season, we collect sap from our Sugar Maples and produce just enough syrup for ourselves for the coming year. The progress of this year's backyard endeavor is illustrated here.
A Bird's Life
Summer 2008, the tiny jewel of the avian world, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, nested just feet from my front door. Pictures of her nest and the changing lives within are collected in thisjournal.From life the size of a pea....