By David J. Hawke -- The calendar has finally caught up with what wildlife have known for a few weeks… it’s spring!
The Canada geese are trickling back northwards, the crows are setting up territories, cardinals are whistling and a song sparrow now frequents our bird feeder. And a bonus was thrown in with that crazy warm day of plus 18 degrees!
As I write, the snow is still knee-deep in our fields, but the base is fast deteriorating which means that with a bit of rain the whole thing will collapse into rushing roaring rivulet of spring flooding. (Hey, downstream people… heads up!)
This is that awkward time of year for those of us who love wildflowers… it’s sunny and warm, but there is still snow on the ground and a frozen layer of soil will hold back most plant growth for another few weeks.
However, swamp lands can provide a reward for the hardy botanist, as these habitats have been able to keep the water moving, albeit slowly, and used the snow cover as insulation. The result is frost-free and damp soil, which a few plant species utilize very well and produce the earliest blossoms of the season.
The first species I’ll mention is actually a tree that thrives in these low lands, a tree with five different names! Depending on which tree identification book you use, it could be referred to as red maple, silver maple, Freeman’s maple, swamp maple or just soft maple.
I may have misled you by saying it was one tree with five names: it’s actually two species and a hybrid of the two. The two separate species are red maple (Acer rubrum) and silver maple (Acer saccharinum) and each has been growing in our local wetlands for several thousand years. A few decades ago, it was determined that another tree was growing with shared characteristics of both the red and silver varieties; and the hybrid was so designated as Freeman’s maple (Acrer x freemanii).
As for the names ‘swamp maple’ or ‘soft maple’ these were local labels applied by early colonists who had not yet gone to forestry school (mainly because forestry schools had not yet been invented).
I have been keeping track of the blooming dates of these wetland maples for a span of 42 years now, and there has been a slight change in their blooming times. For the 20-year span of 1979 thru 1999 the trees popped open their blooms in early April; however, for the 22-year span of 2000 thru 2021 there seems to be a trend to start blooming in late March.
The nectar within the blossoms of these trees is an early season food source for many insects including honey bees and solitary bees as well as many other small flying six-legged things. These flying critters are in turn the important early spring food source to larger flying creatures that have feathery wings, perhaps better known as migrating birds.
So, here’s the dilemma that hand-wringing ecologists are dealing with: if the blossoms pop open before the insects are out and about, pollination may not occur. Or, if the weather has cooperated and the flowers and insects have synched their link, what if that’s all over by the time the hungry warblers arrive from Argentina, Cuba and Brazil? All those wonderful “nature in balance” theories we have mentally carved in stone go out the window like a puff of greenhouse gas.
Climate has always been changing, since Day One, but usually very slowly and with lots of lead time for migrants to adjust to the ‘new way’. These days it’s the increased rate of time that is the worry for ecologists: can wildlife species adapt to new blooming periods and all the changing attachments in their ‘web of life’?
Okay, let’s switch to a fun topic: skunk cabbage. No, not the weird smelling thing in the back of the fridge crisper, but a fascinating wildflower found growing around the base of red/silver/Freeman/swamp/soft maples.
Skunk cabbage (so named for the fetid smelling blossom) is the earliest wildflower to show up in springtime, usually appearing by mid-March and certainly in abundant bloom by late-March. But you are not going to see this spring flower unless you do some serious off-road wandering (at least in Simcoe County… it’s fairly common along waterways in Hamilton).
Even when in glorious bloom you may not be able to see it, as it grows right at ground level and under the snow. Being one of the Arum species of flowers (you may know it’s cousin the Jack-in-the-pulpit) the flower structure is tough and enclosed. Even with a covering of snow, the plant produces a cluster on blooms that, while growing, generates considerable heat. This warmth can cause the snow to melt above it and release the blossom to sunlight and passing insects.
So, while it’s still a tad early for trilliums and hepatica, look up, way up, and you may see the maple blossoms that certainly mark the arrival of the new season.
Dave’s Notebook: Ya, ya, I know. Snow? Really? But we are not yet out of March so I guess that's fair.
© 2022 David J. Hawke