Thursday, April 10, 2014

Spring Came Today!

Four weeks ago, a friend from Chancellorsville, Virginia emailed to ask "When are you going to post a story about spring?" I thought a moment before answering. A month ago, at the time I received her email, it was still snowing with nightly temperatures in the single digits. I had to remind myself that where Cathy lives and works, spring was already budding and peeping and greening up. I was still sloshing through snowy trails. My Friday night peeper watch had been less than exciting. Only last week did about five peepers call at my favorite riverside vernal pool framed by well-built stone walls of the old Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal Lock 12. I responded I would post a story about spring when I was sure it was here. Well, today it came!

A spring peeper, handsomely translucent! 

The temperatures shot into the seventies and it seemed, in an automatic response, that my lawn immediately turned green and started to grow. The wetlands at Swan Harbor Farm where I work, about twenty miles south, has been loud with peepers since Monday, but tonight Lock 12 was roaring with tiny frogs. Suddenly maples popped their chubby red buds. My apiary has been busy for about three days now, after a long winter of worry. Many field bees are returning with pollen baskets heavy with bright yellow pollen. The skunk cabbage decided it was time to send up leaves after weeks of tentatively hiding hooded flowers in semi-frozen muck. It was a start and stop spring, long in coming, but then voila! here it is at long last.

Dutchman's breeches, Dicentra cucullaria - oh the scandal!

Down at the old canal pond along the river, the peepers were all about yelling. They were determined to shout spring into existence. It was deafening but exciting to hear - at long last! From little green clumps of fresh foliage on the forest floor, Dutchman's breeches were beginning to bloom. A close, on-the-ground examination of these favorite spring blossoms revealed two outer petals fused into the 'pants' imagined by early naturalists, with the two interior yellow petals peeking out from the bottom. Victorian naturalists were embarrassed by the 'breeches' part of the popular name, for as any good, cultivated botanizer of the day would have known, 'breech' actually meant 'rump' or rudely put, 'backside'.  So they were pretty proper about using the scientific name Dicentra. The tightly sealed downward hanging flower is only accessible to the long tongue of the bumble bee, an important source of early spring nectar.

Trout lily leaf knifes it's way upward.

Another exclusive bumble bee flower is the trout lily, Erythronium americanum. Though no flowers yet graced the forest around the canal pond today, the sharp-pointed leaves emerging from underground corms several inches below, were knifing up through a thick mat of leaves. Also downward facing, the soon-to-appear lily blossoms will attract queens with their delicate scent. The queens are eager to collect nectar and pollen to provision their nests. She'll provide honey pots full of nectar and pollen cakes for her young, whom she's been incubating patiently with the heat from her body in an old mouse house hidden in a clump of grass or pocket in the stonework of the canal wall.

No longer watered by the river, the old Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal at Lock 12 is a vernal pond that stretches over sixty feet in length between the lock walls. By early summer the pond dries up and the peepers return to the forest.

Hoping to see an emerging bumble bee queen, I hung around until almost dark. The river was roaring with snowmelt from northern Pennsylvania and New York. The peepers were exuberantly announcing the first real day of spring. But, it soon turned chilly again, and I saved watching for bees for another warm day. So while Cathy at Monticello has enjoyed the early spring flowers and bumble bees for several weeks now, the fun has just begun for us in the Susquehanna Valley with so much more to come!

For the folklore of our native wildflowers:

Jack Sanders. The Secrets of Wildflowers: A Delightful Feast of Little-Known Facts, Folklore, and History. Lyons Press (2003).

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