The Quickening

In the middle of April, between snowfalls, with the new leaves of this year’s early wildflowers just starting to unfold, I posted on social media a couple of plant photos (newly emerging leaves) with the following commentary:  “Hang on, kids, here it comes: the quickening exultation of floristic fever as our local vegetation awakens from the deep sleep of winter and races into full form to dazzle and enchant plant geeks across the land.”

I call it the quickening, a term also used to describe the first movements of an unborn child felt by an expectant mother. I use it to describe the first movements we perceive on the part of growing plants each spring, the exceptional acceleration of botanical activity that takes place here April-to-May, that frenzied state of hastening changes, barreling headlong into the growing season as wildflowers and trees alike press forward in an eruption of fecundity that takes our collective breath away. Blink and you’ll miss it.

Every day brings new leaves, new blooms, new discoveries along the trail. Before the trees put forth their leaves, wildflowers—we call them spring ephemerals for the fleeting nature of their appearance—bloom in profusion across our timbered lands. Generally speaking, prairies and wetlands bloom later; springtime is time for the woods to shine.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) flowers may persist for only a few days.  Photo from Severson Dells, April 24, 2018.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) flowers may persist for only a few days.  Photo from Severson Dells, April 24, 2018.

Spring ephemerals appear in the woods early in the season, before the trees put forth their leaves. Around here, a few weeks after the vernal equinox, sunlight reaches the surface of the earth at a fairly direct angle, fueling the process of photosynthesis in woodland wildflowers. Once the trees come into leaf, shade is more prevalent in the woods and spring ephemerals scale back their metabolic activity; some go dormant by midsummer.

Food produced by these wildflowers during the brief period of active spring growth may be stored underground in a root organ called a corm. Unlike a bulb, which is layered (like an onion), a corm is a solid storage device. It holds enough food for the plant to survive the lengthy period of dormancy, summer to spring, and feed the plant’s growth until it can refuel, so to speak, by conducting photosynthesis.

Sharp-lobed hepatica (Anemone acutiloba) is a delicate flower of wooded slopes.  Photo from Severson Dells April 24, 2018.

Sharp-lobed hepatica (Anemone acutiloba) is a delicate flower of wooded slopes.  Photo from Severson Dells April 24, 2018.

Woodland wildflowers are among the native plants most favored in this region, arriving as they do to grace the land with color and vitality after the long sleep of dull dormancy. We love our spring ephemerals not only for their sudden beauty, delicate and subtle, but also for their role as harbingers, heralding the commencement of the growing season, with all its promise of delights and discoveries to come.

Our early blooms signal the release of winter’s hold upon the land, offering cheerful relief from the cold and dark months that came before. And these first flowers of the year entice us to explore our natural areas, seeking out each successive species as it expresses itself in the environment, taking its place in a grand botanical pageant that spans the seasons. It starts with the quickening; don’t blink, or you’ll miss it.

Light in the Sky

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Recent weather systems have ushered in some glorious skyscapes, with a delightful play of light and shadow, color and texture, gracing the space above us. Cool days and crisp nights herald the coming of autumn, weeks before the equinox arrives. Sunsets come earlier and sunrises, later. Sunlight glances in on a slant distinctly different from that of high summer. We can feel the change in the air.

Of all these seasonal changes, one that tickles me most is the light in the sky. Clouds, lit from beyond, cast shadows of blue or gray that seem to support the white billows above. As gentle winds send undulating waves through the prairie grasses and set the tall, yellow Silphium and Helianthus to wave rollicking across the landscape, breezes usher low clouds across the sky in a procession of festive forms.

Any time of day might offer a show or feature a surprise, like the red moon that shone down upon us in September, just past full, ruddy with the residue of western wildfires. For those of us fortunate enough to be under a cloudless sky, August’s solar eclipse was something rare and wonderful to experience. Those even more fortunate caught a glimpse of the elusive aurora borealis in September.

No matter where you are, in city or town or out and away, you might catch a glimpse of the parade in the sky. For my part, I prefer to see it framed in nature, cast in a setting of leafy trees or adorned by the nodding spikelets of tall grasses.

Pause to breathe deeply; capture a moment of quiet; see the seasonal skyscape.  Go ahead. Take a look. Raise your gaze and smile back at the sky.