Monday, April 4, 2011

Searching for spring

Draba verna

"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.

Earthstar puffball

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.
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

in fruit

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.

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KGMom said...

Lovely lovely photos--so evocative of spring.
Makes me remember what spring is like--as here in central PA it seems we have not had spring yet. I am hoping we do, but I fear a leap into summer.

Heather said...

Awesome post, Nina. It's always so fun to read everyone's different take on events like this. That picture of the Earthstar is really sticking with me, though. I think that the open "petals" look like they are made of leather. So interesting. 'Twas fun sharing this spring outing with you!

Andrew Lane Gibson said...

Draba brachycarpa really is a fascinating plant. I've had many a run in with the prickly pear cactus' at the Sandy Springs site trying to lay on the ground to snap a good picture of these guys!

Randy Lakes said...

Nina, Thanks so much for the post and Tricia's photos. I don't knoiw which is more lyrical - Leopold's poem or your prose following it. Both are simple, yet thought provoking! Once again I enjoyed spending the day with the gang and you. Keep up the great work and I hope to see you soon!

Kelly said...

...loved the post, Nina! Leopold's poem fits perfectly. I really enjoyed spending the day with you and everyone in the group. I learned a lot and made new friends. Such tiny little plants...such beauty.

Diana Boyd said...

Nina, a wonderful view of our outing last Saturday!
I am happy that you found the Earthstar, I missed it.
We had a great day, glad you shared it!

Anonymous said...


This is a question for the webmaster/admin here at

May I use part of the information from your post right above if I provide a backlink back to this website?


nina at Nature Remains. said...

Anonymous John,
You'll have to tell me a little bit more about who you are and what you'd like to link me to before I can answer that.
Usually, though, I appreciate links to other nature/natural history/photography-based sites.
If you're not comfortable giving further info through this comment section, please contact me through my email. Profile section should direct you there.

nina at Nature Remains. said...

Heather, Randy, Kelly and Diane,
Yep, creeping along nose-to-the-ground is always a sure bet for a great day in the outdoors!
Diane-nice to make your acquaintance!
Kelly-we really should get together more often!
Randy-stalking mustards proves to be a bit easier than katydids, eh?
Heather-wheeee, the countdown has begun!

Kathy McDonald said...

Beautiful shots Nina. Enjoyed being out with you again. I always learn so much, especially from these posts that help review what we saw for the day. Thanks!

nina at Nature Remains. said...

I learn it better, too, Kathy.
Having to fact-check and get images correctly labeled is a great review. And in making sure it makes sense (I hope!) to the reader, it's better understood by me as well.
Thanks for your hospitality.
I enjoyed every minute of the day!

Sharon Lovejoy said...

This is the familiar dance of spring for us in California too. We journey just a few miles to the amazing Carrizo Plains where we can see upwards of a hundred species of flowers IF we've had a decent amount of rain.

I came to you via the Bird Watcher's Digest. I thoroughly enjoyed your story about the Wood Pool. Loved the photo of the salamander eggs where I could also see your reflection!

Thanks for caring and thanks for sharing. I'll be back!

All simple joys,

Sharon Lovejoy Writes from Sunflower House and a Little Green Island

P.S. I am observing an Anna's hummingbird in our garden. Her two eggs just hatched and I did snatch a photo of them, but my camera is NOT the greatest. It is a goal to get a new one...however, we DO have a red canoe, which we adore and use when we are in Maine on our little island.

nina at Nature Remains. said...

Thanks for taking the time to find me, Sharon. And I'm glad you enjoyed the BWD article--Wood Pool is a place near to my heart, as I'm sure you understand.
A red canoe--fantastic!
We all need to take life at a slower speed.