February 12, 2013 – Chris and I headed out this morning for a walk at our local park to see if there were any signs of spring to be found among the local flora and fauna. The first thing I noticed were these lovely Red Elderberry buds (Sambucus racemosa) just waiting to burst forth. There’s a volunteer Red Elderberry in my garden right now and it has already started to leaf out. But this particular tree is along Clark’s Creek, so perhaps it’s a little behind because the temperature is a few degrees colder next to the water.
The showy beaked hazelnut (Corylus cornuta) catkins are visible from quite a distance. The catkins are comprised of petal-less male flowers that provide pollen for the tiny female flowers which are also without petals. The female flowers have tiny reddish hair-like stigmas that protrude from small buds and catch the pollen as it floats by. Can you see the stigmas in the images below? Hazelnuts (sometimes called filberts) are our native nuts and are extremely nutritious and tasty if you can get some before the Stellar’s Jays and squirrels!
We went just a few steps further down the trail and I noticed this little beauty emerging from the soil at the water’s edge. Among the first plants to produce flowers in the spring, the western skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus) is one of only a few species of thermogenic plants meaning it has the ability to raise it’s temperature above that of the surrounding air. In the case of skunk cabbages, the heat they produce warms the frozen ground enough for the flowers to emerge relatively early. Some theorize that earlier emergence minimizes competition for pollinators with other species. Others believe that the real reason for thermogenesis is to help spread the chemicals that attract pollinators (the skunky smell). And still others believe the warmth provides a cozy haven for the pollinators making the plant more attractive as a habitat. Regardless, it’s an amazing, and as of yet poorly understood, example of plant adaptation and diversity.
Ahhh, stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Food, fiber, and medicine all wrapped up in an inconspicuous plant that really keeps you on your toes. What’s not to love, right? Well, it’s popping up all over the place and it’s just perfect right now to harvest and throw into your stir fry.
Considered another harbinger of spring, Indian Plum (Oemleria cerasiformis) is actually the first native Pacific Northwest shrub to flower in late winter. It provides an important early source of nectar to pollinators such as hummingbirds and native bees. The leaves also emerge early and take advantage of the sunlight available before the overstory canopy fills in and shades out the plants and shrubs below. This little Indian plum bud was the first of many that we saw just on the verge of spilling out their lovely cascade of small, white flowers.
We can currently see four Great Blue Heron nests in the heronry that started up last spring or so. There were two herons on this one nest. Mates? Can hardly wait to see some big heron babies!
But for me, nothing says spring quite like the American Robin (Turdus migratorius). I’ve been awakening daily to a male singing on the edges of his territory (one edge happening to be the peak of the roof right above my bedroom window!). We’ve also got a Eurasian-collared dove singing in our spruce close by. If you haven’t heard one before, I encourage you to check out: http://allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eurasian_Collared-Dove/id on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website and enjoy the sound we hear over and over again every morning. Ahhh, love is in the air. The Cornell site is amazing, by the way…
What signs of spring are you seeing in your neighborhood? Are they earlier than expected or right on time? Consider jotting down things you notice in a calendar or nature journal then comparing your notes year after year. Let us know what you find out there!
Check out these upcoming Wolf College courses on emerging plants, migrating birds and other signs of spring:
• Spring Classes in Washington & Oregon: Local Wild Edible Plants & Backcountry Herbal Medicine; Safety, Tracking & Bird Alarms in Wolf, Cougar & Bear Country
• Spring Workshops in Western Washington: Wild Foods Foraging & Herbal Medicine Making; Understanding Birds and Their Voices
• Camps & Expeditions: Wild Ethnobotany & Herbalism Training; Wolves & Wildlife Trackers Training