There often comes a time in early spring when the seasonal progress seems to stall — there are still freezing temperatures at night, many ponds are still ice-covered, the iris shoots in the meadows aren’t getting perceptibly bigger, meadow grasses and sedges lie flat and dead, the lady ferns stay humped under their old dark fronds — and we get impatient for more signs of spring.
That is a good time to notice little spots of color in the forests and meadows. Folks who live in Southeast had better like green and gray because those colors are the common background on the landscape — green conifers and frequent gray clouds. One can add “brown” for all the dead grasses and sedges lying in the meadows. But the little bright spots of other colors are a visual treat, adding interest to a walk.
Touches of red pop up in several ways:
• Ruby red berries of so-called false lily of the valley lie nestled like glowing jewels in the moss. These are last year’s fruits that typically don’t ripen until they have overwintered. They will feed the early-arriving robins and then the hermit thrushes.
• Red twigs of the early-blueberry shrubs gleam, adding a pleasing contrast in the still-leafless understory. That observation brings up a question: why do these twigs turn red but not (or so I am told by those who know more than I do) those of the later-blooming Alaska blueberry?
• A few translucent red berries of high-bush cranberry hang at the ends of thin branches, uneaten by bears or pine grosbeaks or anybody else last fall or winter.
• A flash of red on the side of a tree trunk helps to advertise the presence of a red-breasted sapsucker as it hitches its way upward, tapping the bark.
• Along the roadsides, the male catkins of red alder make a swathe of a duller red that is nevertheless very noticeable against the conifers’ green. As the catkins mature, they droop and gradually open to release pollen, and the redness fades.
In residential areas, gardens of multicolored crocuses attract queen bumblebees, busily searching for nectar deep in the flower and grooming pollen off their heads. Some of them probably collect pollen too. Away from settled areas, however, those queens have only male pussy-willows as a source of nectar or pollen, until the early blueberries bloom (adding pinkish-white to the color-scape).
A favorite of many folks is the bright yellow of skunk cabbage. First appearing as a yellow spear emerging from wet places, the hood (or spathe) around the cylindrical inflorescence expands. It helps attract pollinating insects and also happens to provide shelter for the little beetles that come to the small flowers of the inflorescences to feed — and also to court and mate, and incidentally pollinate the flowers. Skunk cabbage provides a “progressive party” of color, because different stands mature at different times as their specific locations warm up. Even one skunk cabbage is delightful; a whole pond full of them is spectacular.
Many of us look for purple mountain saxifrage in early spring. It likes to grow on cliffs and other rocky places, so it is very localized. We always feel rewarded when we find the first blooming ones each spring.
At somewhat higher elevations, Cooley’s false buttercups make splashes of yellow. And don’t forget to look for the violets.
Of course, impatience doesn’t suffice to hurry spring along. But it will come — flocks of robins now skitter along beaches, mallards congregate in the ice-free part of Riverside Park pond, the early songsters are heard more often. Ruby-crowned kinglets now serenade my house daily.
I never tire of watching the prolonged arrival of spring. The basic patterns are generally consistent, but always with some little variations and even surprises.
This year, the big difference is what is missing: there is very little snow on the mountains. The rocky mountainsides are showing all too clearly and the usual cornice on Thunder Mountain hardly developed at all.
The lack of snow “upstairs” will surely have serious consequences, reducing our sources of water and hydropower and the water supply for the creeks where salmon usually spawn.
• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology. “On The Trails” is a weekly column that appears every Friday. Her essays can be found online at onthetrailsjuneau.wordpress.com.