It's Bloom Time

Field Notices
     Witch hazel in flower

Luther College Chips
April 17, 2008

There is urgency in the air. Its symptoms are color and song.

As I write, on April 5, the flowering has already started. In my yard it began with three unshowy early bloomers. The witch hazel bushes tucked away behind my garage are dotted with a haze of rust-red, spidery flowers. If you get close they each look back at you with four stoplight yellow eyes. The pussy willows at our street corner are bumpy with soft, gray catkins: my favorite childhood sign of spring. The hazel brush is now hung with tapered slender catkins almost ready to open to gusts of April wind.

On campus, the red maple in front of Main is filled out almost to bursting. I watch its progress out the window as I climb the first three flights of stairs in the tower where I have my office. It’s still in bud, but on the warm south-facing slope by Ockham House red maple buds have started to burst into fuzzy explosions of pistil and stamen.

From now through the end of the growing season, we will see the crowded race for the attention, the light, the wind and the real estate plants and animals around us need to survive.

The hazel and tall trees like the cottonwood in front of Main rely on their exposure to wind to pollinate before leaves emerge. The witch hazel and the pussy willow strut their stuff while nights are still frosty in hopes of catching the attention of the first insects when there’s not much competition. To do that, even before they can safely put out leaves, they splash out color and scent.

What seems perverse for people is a fact of life in the plant world: the attentions of another species make sex successful. Rooted as they are, plants borrow wings from bees and butterflies for spreading their genetic material and they borrow legs from birds and mammals to send their seed walking in the world.

In that “birds and bees” world, the birds are also starting to make their splash. When I drove down the highway yesterday, male redwing blackbirds were posted every couple hundred feet, perched on fence posts or parading the gravel shoulder. These preening fellows are just as vocal as they are showy. It’s their pioneer way of staking out their attractive piece of neighborhood for the females that will soon show up to pick the bachelor that seems to have it all: looks, a sexy voice, a good situation, enough strength to offer protection and the level of devotion necessary for raising a family no matter what the odds.

The songs you hear around you for the next six weeks are increasingly going to be male attempts at keeping the opposition at bay while winning and keeping the affection of the just-right female. To human ears it sounds absolutely gorgeous, but from a bird perspective it is little less than the all-out battle of the avian all-stars.

The other race that starts now is catching a necessary piece of the light.

As the homework gets intense and your mind gets overtaxed in the next few weeks, take time out for walking in the woods, and keep your eyes often on the ground. In forests, the only time for ground-hugging wildflowers to catch bountiful sunlight is through May, before the trees leaf out.

If you walk the loop trail at Pulpit Rock in late April you will find squirrel corn, trillium, hepatica and bloodroot pushing their way through last fall’s carpet of oak leaves. Leafed out and blooming, they tremble in the cool spring wind visited by bumblebees still sluggish with the season. By midsummer the flowers and many of the plants will have disappeared in the shade: their days in the sun long past by the time the hot nights of July and August roll in.

So keep your eyes, ears and nose alert to the rich display that’s starting to unfold. It is an urgent time for wild things. The only urgency for you is not to miss it. Wait until the world is all leafed out and you will be too late.