Snow or no snow, chill or no chill, spring is inevitable. There’s no gainsaying the vernal equinox. Days lengthen. Ground thaws. Spring’s exquisite ephemerals (flowers that bloom only so long as the forest canopy is not leafed out) will soon be everywhere.
One of the privileges of hanging out with naturalists is that they know where to find first signs of spring.
One of the disadvantages is that they know the names of everything, leaving you wondering if you’ll keep the difference between twinleaf and bloodroot this year.
If you’re lucky enough to have naturalist/photographer friends, your lessons will be a merry marriage of art and science.
If not, you may use these images as a field guide to earliest ephemerals.
One of my favorite nature-questers is Anne Zeman of Kingston. Consummate birder and fine art photographer, she is one of the most alert to signs of changes of seasons. Recently, in a white world, we motored to Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve (just south of New Hope). We required a sighting of the truest, earliest spring herald — skunk cabbage. We know where this hideously named flower pierces ice, melting its way to light and first pollinators. The plants pungency attracts flies, thinking it’s carrion. Because it can achieve 60-degree “furnace” inside those waxen red/green leaves, skunk cabbage has been known to erupt in January.
On our day, we were hindered by snow and ice. Anne and I could make it as far as the Civilian Conservation Corps stone bridge,. Despite serious hiking gear, we could not pass on to Azalea Trail or Violet Trail, let alone achieve the old pond where the skunk cabbage waits. Pidcock Creek chortled at these two nature-deprived humans, desperate for spring. But you can maneuver Bowman’s Trails now and find spring heralds of many hues and moods.
On the road leading down into Bowman’s from the parking lot, spicebush awaits. In “just spring,” or maybe even before ee cummings’ version of this season, petite blossoms the hue of key limes spurt, acting as spring signals even deep in the forest. Bowman’s has an identifying sign below this shrub by the roadway. Scrape a ruddy spicebush twig with a thumbnail, then inhale deeply . A pungent healing fragrance pierces your nostrils, that of benzoin, part of spicebush’s formal name.
There is no more incontrovertible sign of spring than courting eagles. In Salem and Cumberland counties, near Turkey Point and along Stow Creek, particularly, American bald eagles begin courting in January. We can watch our `own’ eagles, soaring with straight-winged majesty over Carnegie Lake. If you’re lucky, you might even hear them caroling their surprisingly light songs of love. Princetonians can see eagles carrying enormous branches to restore their 2014 nest. By now, they are very likely performing nest exchanges, keeping new eggs warm. It’s even more important to eagles that Carnegie Lake thaw, for fish are the mainstay of their diet. If you’re very lucky, usually near the dam or the fishing bridge, you can marvel at an eagle’s shining meal deftly clenched in bright talons.
In Princeton, start your spring quest along our towpath. Spring Beauty will soon blanket its banks, — tiny, white and frail. They actually shiver as we may in the search. But when sun rays reach these silken blooms, they are teased open to reveal thinnest stripes of strawberry/pink. It’s as though someone painted them with a brush of only one hair. These bright accents serve as illuminated runways for pollinators, which is what spring is all about.
A shy harbinger of spring will be early saxifrage. The marvelous name means `rockbreaker’. Fragile as it looks, saxifrage can force its way through stony soil, as over at Bowman’s Hill, as inevitably as skunk cabbage pierces ice.
My candidate for the ephemeral with the ugliest name is cutleaf toothwort. This dainty one blankets the sharp edges of Bowman’s steep trail from their Twinleaf Shop, where one pays nominal admission. This trail has been newly strengthened, post-Sandy, so that it is easily negotiated, down to the site that will be awash in bluebells a month from now. Meanwhile, Dutchmen’s breeches, squirrel corn, and cutleaf toothwort keep the hiker occupied in early spring.
Plants with `wort’ in their name hearken back to the Old English. `Wort’ implies medicinal usage. Maybe this delicate beauty was useful for toothache. Wikipedia asserts, “the first part of the word denoting the complaint against which it might be specially efficacious.” Toothwort is pale, seemingly white, but in certain lights there is a roseate quality, and sometimes even a hint of lavender.
The most famous medicinal plant of early spring could well be hepatica. Obviously, in ancient times, anything with `hepatic’ in its name was significant for liver ailments. I find this a somewhat heavy association for one of the most delicate plants.
Hepaticas thrive at Bowman’s. You can read wall maps and hand maps, and inquire of wise volunteers in their Twin Leaf Shop, The miracle of this hepatica is that these fragile blossoms emerge first. Finding a swathe of hepatica poking through last autumn’s leaves always seems a mirage.
Round-leafed hepatica and the other flowers that bloom until the forest canopy leafs out, work their spring magic, year upon year, wherever humans are wise enough to preserve the habitat they require.
Take yourself to the towpath, to Bowman’s, to the Abbott Marshlands, the Pole Farm in Lawrenceville (off Cold Soil Road), the Institute Woods, the Griggstown Grasslands.
Meanwhile, you will be assisted in your quest by Anne Zeman’s splendid photographs, in her upcoming book on the wildflowers of New Jersey.
Edelmann, a poet and naturalist, is also community relations associate with D&R Greenway Land Trust. She writes and photographs for the nature blog, njwildbeauty.wordpress.com