March 31, 2012

Hot Flashes and Cold Snaps

Male pussywillow (Salix discolor), 3/21/12
Now that the dancing in the streets has subsided, I dare reflect on this topsy-turvy spring weather.  Last week's hot flash (a record 84ยบ on 3/21) pushed many tree buds into unprotected leaf and bloom, some 2-3 weeks ahead of schedule.  While some species are equipped to weather the inevitably chilly nights that follow, others are left vulnerable to a chilly backlash. 

Several tree and shrub species are typically early bloomers in Concord -- opening in sequence between the vernal equinox and early April, including various willows, silver maple, red maple, American elm, hazelnut, poplar, and sweet gale. .  This month these species opened all at once, along with some later flowering shrubs. 

It takes little encouragement to pop open the flowers of silver maples, one of spring's first bloomers, but a spring snow shower can leave them looking like a blossom sundaes!

Male silver maple flowers (Acer saccharinum), 3/14/12 -- Concord River

Silver maples become blossom sundaes on 4/1/11
Silver maple fruits, 3/30/12
 Concord's numerous willow identities challenge even expert botanists.  Their furry male catkins range in color from soft white and gray to delicate pinks, opening to a froth of yellow (and sometimes red tipped) stamens.  The oblong females, on close inspection, reveal a tightly packed collection of green, vase-shaped vessels tipped with tiny yellow stigmas.  Catkin sizes, shapes, placement on stems, and bloom dates vary across different species.
Female pussywillow catkins (Salix discolor) -- GMNWR
Unidentified pink, male willow catkins
Female black willow catkins (Salix nigra) - GMNWR
Male black willow catkins (Salix nigra)
Male American hazelnut flowers bloom in late March -- waggling their golden catkins in unmown uplands and woodland edges, drawing us in to notice their tiny, red pistilate (female) flowers and noticeably hairy stems.
American hazelnut flowers (Corylus americana)
Box elder buds are also distinctive at this time, often found at eye-level on saplings in damp, fallow fields.  Box elder belongs to the Maple family.

Male box elder bud (Acer negundo) -- EQF Community Garden
Box elder male flowers and new leaves
Certain introduced and invasive species adapt well to increasingly erratic weather patterns, leafing out with the first warm days.  Multiflora rose, honeysuckles, and crab apples are already creating a green haze in the forest understories and edges of Concord's fields, rivers, and roadsides.
Honeysuckle's (Lonicera sp.) leafy haze along the Concord River, 3/30/12
Rosa multiflora beginning its vigorous thorny growth in March
Glistening crabapple leaves and sparkling water
Wetlands and spring seeps come alive in March with primordial voices and movements and primitive flowers.  The inconspicuous sweet gale (Myrica gale), a bayberry relative, bursts into a tawny bloom that escapes notice of all but the observant eye.  Cone-shaped male flowers and madder-colored female blossoms bloom on separate shrubs in shallow, marshy waters.
Male sweet gale flowers, 3/22/12 - GMNWR
Female sweet gale flowers (life-sized)
Female sweet gale flowers (close-up)
Blueberry buds, 3/30/12 -- GMNWR
Finally, a nod to one of our earliest spring wildflowers, skunk cabbage. Those camouflaged fairy slippers that bloom in Concord's wet woods and drainages, reached full blossom last week.  Skunk cabbage keeps a regular annual rhythm no matter the weather. These amazing flowers generate their own heat during their spring growth spurt to bore through frozen ground and lingering snow cover to catch the attention of early foraging insect pollinators.

Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), 3/21/12


  1. Interesting that this morning, 4/1/12, we're having the same freezing temps as last year, I suspect turning all the early blooms into blossom sundaes again. Love all the beautiful early buds. A lovely post.

  2. Wow, quite a post. It's good to know a great botanist from my own area. I'll be home soon to see these items in the field.

  3. Thank you both. Despite this long stretch of coolness, that March heat really switched things on. I've been finding buds opening and new growth that is a good 2-3 weeks ahead of schedule -- especially in wet woodland areas.

  4. Great info, I may get to now learn the names of the many trees and plants that I admire.