I was a little jealous a few days ago – my friends in Vermont, and my friends up in Ashland, WI, were all reporting frogs calling. Oh, to hear the spring chorus again!
To console myself, I went for a glorious bike ride along the east side of Lake Namakagon. Alder catkins dangled limply in the soggy ditches, already having released most of their pollen. The dark little female catkins, resembling tiny pinecones, have hopefully caught enough of the pollen from the wind for all of their seeds. They will remain on the speckled burgundy twigs throughout the year.
Silvery catkins, not quite ready to release pollen yet, bedeck the male pussy willow shrubs. On separate female pussy willows, the much less conspicuous female catkins begin to open. They look more like a bottlebrush than a lucky rabbit’s foot. In the plant world, this gender segregation is termed “dioecious,” from the Greek “two houses.” Plants where the male and female flowers are on the same bush, such as the alders, we call “monoecious,” meaning “one house.”
It is days like this, when the snow has melted, the sun is bright and the woods are mostly brown, that benefits of being an evergreen plant really shine. The waxy leaves of wintergreen look productive on the road bank. The white pine and cedar needles have lost their winter pall. Many non-native weeds, trying to look inconspicuous by lying flat to the sidewalk cracks and the gravel edges, are actually rejoicing in a flurry of photosynthesis.
In those brown woods, there are lacy green rosettes of evergreen woodfern lying flat to the ground. Last autumn the base of each leaf stem softened to form a hinge. This allowed the fern to overwinter in the subnivean layer. Snow cover insulated the leaves and protected them from the drying winds. Because of this protection, they can retain most of their chlorophyll and are ready to start making sugar at the first signs of warm sun. These old leaves will never stand upright again, but they do fuel the growth of a new set of lacy fronds.
As the subnivean layer is exposed, we find even more evidence of a busy winter beneath the snow. Mouse and vole runs appear in melting drifts and in thatches of dry brown grass. Delicate white fungal hyphae – the vegetative, root-like part of a fungus – are caught in the act of decomposing leaves, acorn caps, sticks, and even scat. The white fuzz reminds us that more than ferns and mice that thrive under the snow.
The subnivean layer supports a complex community of life, including vast mats of fungi and bacterial colonies—many of which were not even known to science 20 years ago. They play a hugely important role in recycling nutrients, and even in releasing and sequestering carbon dioxide.
As a soft, warm, dusk fell over the woods, I could not resist one more evening excursion. I slopped down the driveway toward a little alder swamp. I felt a thrill in the air. I stopped to listen. Sure enough, a jingle bell chorus of spring peepers rang out through the woods, punctuated by the quacks of wood frogs.
Every spring I feel the same thrill as each new thing blooms, or wakes, or returns. As usual, Mary Oliver captures the feeling for me, this time in her poem “Pink Moon – The Pond”: You think it will never happen again / Then, one night in April / the tribes wake trilling.
In the depths of winter, it was hard to believe that this would ever happen again. Now we are already a month ahead, and spring phenology just keeps happening! I would love to hear about your observations and spring discoveries. What is blooming? Who is singing? And how early are they?