Normally, we would have snow on the ground and the temperature would be plus 3.
Nothing normal about the first day of spring this year. It feels like July and it’s plus 24.
Many trees still have their leaves tightly covered, but some are showing signs of life – the blush of red on the white birch, the silvery sheaths on the serviceberries, the plump soft green balls on the hawthorn that by evening were preparing to open. I don’t need a magnifier to see the green on the nanny berry bushes. Meadowsweet, ninebark and a number of the roses are also sporting slivers of green.
Best of all is the leatherwood (Dirca palustris), named for its flexible stems and roots. This is a rare and elegant little native tree or shrub. Today I found it in flower, its lovely delicate yellow bells with prominent stamens dangling from bare stems. Soon it will leaf out, earlier than everything else in the bush. And then it disappears into the mix and good luck if you want to get some seed, the fruit must be quite delicious for some creature, because one day it’s green and not ready to harvest and the next, it’s gone...
Back home, I head out with a maginifying glass to delve into leaf buds. This is the best way of identifying trees in winter. In spring, it’s especially rewarding to get up close to buds that seem at first glance to be dead, but on closer examination reveal the coiled life preparing to burst forth There’s beauty to be discovered. The buds of the striped maple are a soft cream, rising out of red scales, pale green at the base, a blush of pink at the tip. The highbush cranberry has the same colour scheme but in reverse, long swollen buds, reddish at the base, green atop.
I grew two Ohio buckeye (Aesculus glabra) trees from seed last year. The seed looks like a small horse chestnut, and in fact the tree is from the same family, because the horse chestnut (A. hippocastanum) is not really a chestnut, but the European form of the buckeye. The Ohio buckeye seedlings were planted out in fall and have come through looking healthy, each one a sturdy four inches ending in a tightly furled leaf bud that looks like a little umbrella that’s just beginning to unfold. I hope they grow faster this year.
The giants of the forest seem to be holding back – there’s an undefinable quickening of the red buds of the maples, but the oaks, the ash, the elm, the beech, the black walnut are keeping their own counsel... The Manitoba maple, an over-enthusiastic intruder from the west, is leafing out. The buds of its flowers can be seen, enclosed in a circle of leaves. Soon, unless a killing frost sends everyone back to the starting line, the tree will be alive in bees, the buzz offering a foretaste of summer, on a bright spring morning. This year, we got the summer before the buzz.
The heat makes me feel strangely uneasy. Our bodies aren’t ready for it, says a friend who has just wound up his sugaring operation. It was a nine-day season, a week or two short of what’s expected. The sap stopped two nights ago. The first few days of this very early run produced exceptionally clear and pale syrup, the type appreciated by connoisseurs. The last few days the syrup turned dark, dark, dark. There’s a slight bitterness to its aftertaste. I buy both kinds. Each has its use.
Just to think. A few days ago I was in the forest, looking at snow fleas . These are not in fact fleas but members of the springtail family. I learned recently that when the snow melts, they populate the soil where they play a key role, along with mycorhizal fungi, in releasing important nutrients in a form that canbe taken up by trees and other plants. Snow fleas are an interesting phenomenon of late spring. It’s good to know they’re still out there and hard at work as the snow melts away.