Spring Woods

By Elaine Farragher

With the arrival of spring, I am always impressed by the great regularity of nature. Like little automatic springs hidden in the ground, green things start to appear in wonderfully predictable succession, one after another, inching their way up, unfolding in slow but deliberate renewal of life.

Actually, most of the time I feel as if it is anything but slow, that if my attention wanders for a day or two to other things, I will suddenly notice that a tree I had been watching is suddenly in full leaf and I have completely missed the process of it coming out. For the spring season is regrettably short. When the earth warms up, the race is on, to grow, bloom and produce seeds, all before the winter cold imposes its strictures once again.

If you want to find the very earliest plants in spring, the best place to look is within a deciduous forest. These plants must grab the light they need in the short interval between spring thaw and when the forest canopy leafs out, and cuts off much of the light to the forest floor. So these plants must grow, bloom and produce seeds in the short space between sometime in April and late May. There is no way they could accomplish such a feat if they were to grow from scratch from a mere tiny seed. So the early bloomers solve this difficulty by having their flowers already pre-formed and ready to grow before spring ever arrives, in fact, the summer before. While all the summer flowers are blooming and producing seeds above ground, the spring flowers are getting ready for the following season underground. By winter, the spring flowers are mostly already formed, in miniature, as little buds at the tips of roots or rhizomes. All they need is some water so they can expand into full-fledged flowering plants. The plant doesn’t need to produce much new tissue. Which is why it seems that some spring flowers just seem to pop out of nowhere in an amazingly short length of time.

Every spring, I find myself wandering to the same spots in the nearby woods, waiting expectantly for those plants to come up again, the way they always have the years before. One of the best known of the spring plants, the skunk cabbage, is the earliest riser of them all, even poking through the snow in March. It does this by producing its own heat by burning food reserves stored the previous season, and actually melting the snow around it. The bloodroot, one of the prettiest of them all, blooms even before its leaves have fully unwrapped, making it appear as if it has really come up too soon and is using its leaves to stay warm in the still-cold weather. At this time of year it is easy to see how the bloodroot got its name. If you pull up one of the stems you will find that the base of it will exude a rich red juice that looks very much like blood. The Indians once used it as a dye for baskets, clothing and war paint, as well as an insect repellent. However, I don’t suggest you go around pulling up bloodroot to get at the juice. Not if you want to see it again next year instead of a bare patch of ground.

Early bloomers are sometimes densely hairy. This is a way of insulating themselves from the severe temperatures the season may yet bring. The coltsfoot and the hepatica both use this method. As well as this, the hepatica’s three-lobed leaves do not die over winter, but persist to give the plant some quick and early photosynthesis the following spring.

Since their flowers bloom even before the insect world has had a chance to really get underway, they are usually not fussy about which insects provide for their pollination. While many summer flowers require a specific kind of insect to do this service, for early spring flowers, any insect will do.

Some trees also preform their flowers and leaves the previous season. If you want to examine what such a compact plant looks like, the perfect bud to pick is one produced by the horse chestnut. These large red buds are quite obvious in winter and picking one apart will reveal a compact flower cluster that looks more like a bunch of little white grapes. This will be covered with the leaves, tiny, but completely formed and waiting for the flush of spring to expand its cells and burst it from its protective covering. For the ‘flush of spring’ really is just that.

Elaine Farragher 1988

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