An Irish Spring

“I wake and hear it raining.” So begins Mark Van Doren’s wonderful poem “Morning Worship” and so began many of my mornings last spring. Van Doren goes on to list the wonders of the natural world he would miss were he dead, praising all the “sweet beings” that he knows will outlive him–mountains, huge trees, turtles, sunrise, waterfalls, mosses, owls, trout, deer, butterflies, and more, the kind of list that anyone tuned to the outdoors can empathize with.

Adopting his optimism and joy, especially on rainy days, I set out to praise what I thought of as our Irish spring. Half a century ago, when I was a teenager, I spent a wet Easter week touring Ireland with my parents and three younger siblings. We had only one rain-free morning and that was at Galway Bay. The rest of the time it rained, sometimes hard, sometimes soft. Occasionally we experienced what the Irish call “a bright period,” when the drizzle almost stopped and when the sun almost broke through the lowering clouds. We quickly learned why Ireland is known as the “Green Isle.” I have never forgotten the brilliant, almost surreal green that blanketed the rural landscape.

Ireland was de-forested centuries ago and thus did not have the many shades of green I saw in our forest last spring. Those shades included the ten greens I found in a box of 64 Crayola crayons. Between the prosaically-named blue green and green yellow, were forest green, sea green, asparagus, [true] green, granny smith apple green, yellow green, spring green, and olive green–a list that fell far short of the medley of greens adorning our forest.

The cold, wet weather also held all the vegetation in its tender, gauzy state, and for weeks I felt as if I was walking through one of Claude Monet’s impressionistic paintings. In the rain and fog the trees in our forest seemed larger and more awe-inspiring. What was usually mundane morphed into the mysterious.

It was what Pennsylvania botanist and ecologist Paul Weigman calls a “soft spring” because wildflowers bloom and prosper in such weather. The weather also lengthened their growing season. The bright yellow disks of coltsfoot and pink and white blossoms of the fragrant trailing arbutus bloomed on and on in prolific glory throughout most of April. Beside our stream hundreds of purple trillium flowered for nearly three weeks. So too did the long-spurred violets. The tiny white blossoms of mitrewort lasted a month.

Other wildflowers, such as hepatica, clintonia, Indian cucumber-root, pink lady’s slipper and jack-in-the-pulpit, sent up luxuriant leaves but not many flowers. Since jack-in-the-pulpit “decides” whether to bloom based on the previous year’s weather, I attributed its lack of blossoms to the drought of 2002. Perhaps the other species had been affected similarly by the previous dry year.

The many rains and protracted cold of early spring also lengthened the blooming time for several shrubs and trees. For much of April the lime-green, puffball-like clusters of spicebush blossoms brightened the understory along our stream while the soft red, yellow, and orange flowers of red maple trees dominated the overstory. Shadbush dressed up our forest for weeks on gloomy, gray days with the white of their delicate, five-petaled flowers that trembled in the slightest breeze. Not only did they bloom longer than usual, but blossoms covered every tree, from tiny saplings to full-grown, forty-foot-high specimens. On some of the trees, the flowers opened first, then the clumps of soft, reddish leaves beneath them, while the flowers still bloomed.

According to The Plants of Pennsylvania by Ann Fowler Rhoads and Timothy Block, this species of shadbush is Amelanchier laevis because it has leaves with a distinct reddish hue that open while the flowers are still blooming. Popularly known as smooth shadbush, it later produces dark, purple-red, sweet and juicy fruit. The other species of shadbush growing here–A. arborea–has leaves that remain folded during flowering and produces dark red, dryish fruit. The most familiar of the eight shadbush species growing in Pennsylvania, it is the earliest to bloom and is also called serviceberry and Juneberry. Both species grow in rocky woods, bluffs, and upland forests.

The rain also made it difficult for pollinating insects to do their job, and the lowbush blueberries and huckleberries on our powerline right-of-way produced few fruits. Even though on one sunny day I smelled the acrid, cloying odor of blooming wild black cherry tree blossoms, not a single fruit developed. The many forest-dwelling solitary bee species that pollinate them must have been discouraged by the weather.

Unfortunately, some insects thrived in the wet spring, namely flies, gnats, and mosquitoes. Hordes of them hatched by mid-April, so watching birds on the rare nice days meant fighting off the insects as I tried to focus my binoculars.

Butterflies, on the other hand, were late and sparse although on one sunny morning I watched a red admiral nectaring on our old wild apple tree blossoms amid a frenzy of bumblebees and honeybees. By the afternoon it was raining hard again. Other butterflies, such as tiger swallowtails and monarchs were at least two weeks later than usual. This two week lag held throughout the spring and summer for many returning birds and blooming wildflowers as well. Even the goldenrod blossoms in late summer were two weeks late.

The wild creatures, like me, took advantage of every “bright period.” After one wet morning in May it cleared at noon. As I wrote in my journal:

Sixty degrees and a little sun is a big blessing. Walking up Laurel Ridge trail at 2:00 p.m. I ran into a large aggregation of grunting, chasing gray squirrels–close to a dozen in two separate groups. Lots of squealing and derring-do leaps. Once a squirrel hit the ground. I assume a couple females were in heat.

Two days later, after still another rainy morning, it stopped by early afternoon, and I walked down our road. Immediately, I experienced a sensory overload–sounds, smells, and sights of water flowing down every small hollow, filling up our stream and creating miniature waterfalls throughout its mile and a half passage to the Little Juniata River. This brand-new, scrubbed-clean world so permeated my senses that it blotted out all sounds of our technological society.When I reached Waterthrush Bench, it started raining again, but I put up my umbrella and walked to the bottom of our road to admire the tallest of the waterfalls. Then, still under my umbrella, I returned to the bench to drink a leisurely cup of tea.

Finally, I resumed my walk and watched a pair of common grackles, undeterred by the rain, flying above the stream. About two-thirds of the way back up the road, it stopped raining. By the time I reached the fork in our road–one leading to our deceased neighbor Margaret’s old home, the other to ours–the sun emerged.

I sat down on a large, flat rock seat, listened to a singing scarlet tanager and watched a sodden woodchuck cross the road. Sunlight sparkled on the wet leaves and I felt as if I was living in perpetual April. An Acadian flycatcher sang its explosive “wee-see.” A chipmunk scampered close for a look at my seated form, and a doe grazed along Margaret’s driveway, moving slowly toward me.

Suddenly, I was buzzed by a male ruby-throated hummingbird zipping back and forth low over my head. For a minute I wondered if he would strike me or if I was in the middle of his swooping courtship flight. But when I turned slowly toward him, he flew off. My movement also startled the doe and she moved nervously up the slope and out of sight.

The animals, like me, were taking advantage of the brief sunshine. Within a few minutes the sky had turned mostly blue, and the sun suffused the forest with golden light. By the time I walked the last quarter-of-a-mile home, there was not a cloud in the sky. The sunshine lasted for only an hour, though, and then, just as quickly, it clouded over once again.

Even on the morning of my National Migratory Bird Count I awoke to a four o’clock thunderstorm. But an eastern phoebe started the chorus of birdsong as I lay in bed and before breakfast, despite the light rain, I counted 19 species, including a yellow-breasted chat in the barberry hedge and a Baltimore oriole in a black walnut tree.

The rain stopped and I set out quickly for the Far Field. There I found two singing cerulean warblers, two male scarlet tanagers, the first indigo bunting of the season, and a flock of white-throated sparrows. Best of all, on a whim I pursed my lips and made a pishing sound and a silent Canada warbler emerged from the Far Field thicket. By then the sky had darkened and thunder rumbled ominously so I rushed the mile back home, reaching it just as another storm struck.

I sat glumly inside, my species’ list at 38. When Bruce told me he had to drive into town, I hitched a ride down to Waterthrush Bench and sat in the drizzle listening to a singing Louisiana waterthrush. Later, I joined Bruce at the bottom of the mountain and in a misty rain, we walked along the railroad right-of-way as birds sang and called–rose-breasted grosbeaks, American redstarts, a least flycatcher, and yellow warblers. Once I looked up and watched a pair of chimney swifts sailing overhead.Later, as we sat eating lunch in the kitchen, I looked out the window at two white-crowned sparrows eating dandelion seeds. They were species number 48.

After a short rest, I was out again, this time over on Greenbrier Trail, and wonder of wonders, it had almost cleared. Many more birds were out in the seventy-degree weather and I had some memorable views–of a silent, black-throated blue warbler, a worm-eating warbler, and chestnut-sided warbler–and was serenaded by dozens of red-eyed vireos and ovenbirds.

Throughout the day, in rain and in sunshine, I counted 11 singing wood thrushes, eight black-throated green warblers, three hooded warblers, and five black-and-white warblers. Most of my birding was by ear and I was grateful that I still have sharp hearing. Altogether, I counted 57 species and 224 individual birds.

What a privilege it was that day and every day, rain or shine, to be outside, enjoying the beauty around me. Like the poet Van Doren, I am keenly aware that I am “Listening, living, (Oh, but not forever, Oh, end arriving).” An Irish spring, after all, was better than no spring at all.

Flowering Trees of Spring

Last spring was wonderful for those of us who admire the blossoms of deciduous forest trees. The heat wave at the end of March brought out many flowering trees two weeks earlier than usual. Continual cold throughout April and early May kept them in their blossoming stage for weeks instead of days which gave me plenty of time to admire what is normally only a brief phenomenon.

First to bloom were the red maple trees, Acer rubrum. On March 29 they were covered with red or orange flowers or sometimes both, growing in dense clusters along the branches. The showier flowers are the deep red male or staminate flowers that feature long scarlet stamens while the pistillate or female flowers are often orange and yellow. Their sweet odor draws in the early pollinating insects even on the coolest days.

As the deep crimson, opening leaves appeared, the blossoms also deepened in color. Two weeks later they were replaced by dangling, wine-red, green-stemmed, V-shaped, twin fruits which turned the trees into autumnal-like torches. Never had I seen such a burden of maple keys, but I assumed that the unseasonably warm weather during blossoming time had attracted more pollinating insects than usual.

Three days after the first red maples blossomed, they served as a backdrop for the best and longest display of flowering shadbush that I can remember. Every tree was enveloped in a cloud of drooping, long-petaled, white blossoms, and we discovered that we had dozens of this showy, small tree along our trails.

Black Gum Trail, which winds through the mature deciduous forest on Laurel Ridge, was especially beautiful so I devoted one morning–April 10–to celebrating its display of shadbush. I found many trees of all shapes and sizes with blossoms at all stages of development from just-opened to past their prime and already leafing out.

Those leaves were a bronzed, purplish-brown color, which makes the shadbush on our mountain Amelanchier laevis, or smooth shadbush, according to William Carey Grimm’s The Trees of Pennsylvania. This species grows throughout our state, particularly in the mountains. Amelanchier canadensis, the most common shadbush in the commonwealth, has pale greenish young leaves covered with long, pale, silky hairs.

Shadbush, so-named because it blooms the same time that shad returns to eastern coastal rivers from the sea, is also called “serviceberry,” “sarviss,” or “sarvissberry.” Some experts say that is because it bloomed when the first circuit preachers were able to reach the backwoods settlements in early spring to hold church services.

But naturalist/writer Donald Culross Peattie disagrees. In his A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America, he claims that “sarviss” is Elizabethan English for the Latin word “sorbus” given to a fruit that closely resembles that of “sarvissberry.”

The fruit of shadbush gives it still other names–“Juneberry” and “shadberry”–for the dark purple fruits that appear in June. They are so relished by 50 species of birds such as cardinals, robins, cedar waxwings, ruffed grouse, and bluebirds, as well as bears, deer, raccoons, foxes, opossums, and other fruit-eating mammals, that I have yet to find one berry on our mountain. But during a late June trip to West Virginia, I tasted my first serviceberry. No doubt it was A. canadensis, which is not as tasty as A.laevis because it was bland.

Native Americans picked and dried the berries of all four species of shadbush that grow in Pennsylvania. They were also sold in Philadelphia’s markets in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Pennsylvania wild food guru, the late Euell Gibbons, specialized in making shadbush pies, muffins and sauce, and canning, freezing and drying the berries for later use.

But it is for their dainty, star-like flowers that I celebrate these trees, blooming, as they do, while most of the forest still wears its gray winter coat.

On the same day the first shadbush bloomed–April 2–the wild black cherry trees began to leaf out. Unlike the red maples and shadbush, the cherry trees (Prunus serotina) send out their shiny, green leaves before their sprays of white flowers so that it is difficult to see them on the trees. But usually the forest is permeated with the cloying odor of them in late April, a signal to me that the cherry trees are in flower. Furthermore, they produce an abundance of blossoms, many of which are jettisoned during storms, which gives me a close-up look at them. Later, in August or early September, the keening cries of cedar waxwings are a signal that the cherries are ripe. Then the forest floor is covered with purple-black fruits, providing a feast for wild animals and birds on Sapsucker Ridge where our mature black cherry forest grows.

I always find piles of bear scat stuffed with cherry pits beneath the trees but have not yet caught the bears eating cherries. That may be just as well because Peattie claims that years ago, when bears were plentiful in the Appalachians (Peattie was writing back in the 1940s when bears had almost disappeared from most of the area)…”The ripening of the cherry crop was a signal for an ursine congregation. The cubs of the year learned to climb the trees by following their mothers up them to reap the wild cherry harvest. ‘Cherry bears’ were considered especially mettlesome and best left strictly alone.”

Humans, too, once appreciated the fruit. Also known as “rum” or “whisky cherry” trees, Appalachian pioneers made a drink called cherry bounce from the cherry juice. The most famous Appalachian pioneer of all–Daniel Boone–found a more morbid use for the trees. The wood makes splendid caskets and, as an old man, he built several of them to sleep in. He gave away all but his last one to poor people who needed a final resting place.

The flowering dogwood trees (Cornus florida) were also splendid last spring. Their first flowers appeared along Greenbrier Trail on April 14, while the shadbush was still in bloom, and lasted well into May. The white petals that we admire are really modified leaves surrounding the true greenish bunch of small, tubular flowers in the middle. Those leaves, called “bracts,” are signals to pollinating insects that the green flowers contain nectar.

The dogwood put on their best show over on our seven-year-old clearcut. A parade of white trees spilled down over what we formerly called Clearcut Knoll and hastily renamed Dogwood Knoll.

Luckily the loggers could think of nothing to do with them and so most of the dogwoods, along with the crooked, maimed, or otherwise worthless trees and shrubs, such as witch hazel, on what was then the logger’s property, were not cut.

But Native Americans once made a red dye from dogwood roots that they used to color bald eagle feathers and porcupine quills, and during the Civil War tea brewed from the roots was given to the soldiers of the Confederacy as a substitute for quinine to fight malaria.

The black birch trees also blossomed by mid-April. Three-to-four-inch long catkins, covered with purplish-yellow male blossoms, dangle from the branches while one-half inch to one-inch-long, erect, stalkless, female catkins covered with pale green blossoms grow upright on the same tree branches with the male blossoms.

Black birch trees (Betula lenta) are also called “cherry birches” because their bark looks like the mahogany red bark of cherry trees and “sweet birches” because of their sweet sap from which birch beer is brewed. Wintergreen oil was once extracted from their bark by country dwellers, who wastefully chopped down 100 cherry saplings into chips to make one quart of the oil. Today wintergreen oil is manufactured synthetically from wood alcohol and salicylic acid, but a foolproof way to distinguish black birch branches from black cherry branches is to scrape the bark from a small branch and sniff. The wintergreeen odor is always detectable.

By April 17 oak trees of all species–red, white, black and chestnut–were in tender leaf, dangling their long, stringy, fringe-like, male catkins from the same new shoots as the few-flower clusters of stalked, yellow, female flowers. Each grows from the axils of emerging leaves. Sitting under my favorite, 200 year-old white oak tree after a storm, I found scores of the shoots on the ground covered with small, downy, greenish-gold white oak leaves and their attendant greenish-gold male flowers.

White oaks (Quercus alba) are my favorite oak species, a species which Peattie calls the “king of kings… The fortunate possessor of an old white oak owns a sort of second home, an outdoor mansion of shade and greenery and leafy music.” I often sit below my “outdoor mansion” and watch the antics of chipmunks and squirrels and even raccoons and deer on occasion. Its huge trunk has several crevices that perfectly fit my back so that it is indeed a “sort of second home.”

So many trees blossomed abundantly last spring that even those that I had never noticed before, such as a black haw growing on top of the rocky bank beside the Far Field Road, put on a show. Heads of creamy flowers covered this small member of the Viburnum genus–Viburnum prunifolium. Also called “stagbush,” “nannyberry,” “sheepberry,” and “sweet haw,” its sugary fruits are favorites of many birds and mammals. After identifying it and adding it to our list of trees for our property, I wondered if I had merely overlooked it in previous springs or whether it was blossoming for the first time.

Another understory tree, one that blankets the forest floor in the black cherry forest, is the striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum). Unlike red maples, striped maples unfurl dazzling-bright, shiny green leaves before producing four-to-six-inch long strings of drooping, brilliant yellow, showy, bell-like flowers. Male and female flowers usually grow in different clusters on the same tree and the male flowers are slightly more showy than the females’.

I’ve always thought of striped maples as the easiest of all trees to identify no matter what the season. The “striped” refers to their green bark which breaks as their stems expand, revealing a white underlayer that gives the bark a striped appearance. One of their alternate names, “goosefoot,” refers to the shape of their leaves, while “moosewood” signals that their bark is favored by moose as well as rabbits, deer and beavers.

It took the warm days of late May to bring out the flowers of tulip and black locust trees. Like striped maples, tulip-tree flowers emerge after the leaves. Cup-shaped, showy, and erect, the yellow, orange and greenish flowers look almost tropical in their lushness. Those blossoms contain both male and female parts, which makes them, in botanical parlance, perfect flowers. It’s easiest to see the flowers on trees growing out in the open, as one does at the edge of the woods near our house. They “hold the sunshine in their cups,” Peattie writes, “setting the whole giant tree alight.”

A member of the Magnolia family, tulip-trees (Liriodendron tulipfera) are the tallest hardwood trees in North America. Pioneers constructed canoes from their trunks, hence their alternate name “canoe wood.” Their nearly white sapwood earned them the sobriquet “whitewood.” Still another name is “popple.” They also earned the distinction, during the gypsy moth onslaught here 18 years ago, as the only tree species whose leaves were not eaten by the ravaging caterpillars.

Tulip-trees have always been favorites of mine because, like striped maples, they are easy to identify by their distinctive, saddle-shaped leaves, tulip-shaped flowers, cone-shaped fruit, and tall, limbless, straight trunks.

But outstripping even the tulip-tree blossoms in beauty last spring were the black locust trees. They put on the best display we have seen in the 27 years we have lived here. Black locusts, Robinia pseudoacacia, are also called “honey locusts” because of their sweet smell that used to draw in droves of honeybees before most of the wild ones were killed off by mites. In fact, locust honey is still a favorite with honey fanciers, and beekeepers always rejoice when the locust flowers are abundant. Their drooping clusters of white, fragrant, pea-like blossoms are also perfect like those of the tulip-trees.

They line the edge of First Field and so for several days we enjoyed their beauty both at a distance and close at hand. As one early naturalist wrote, “It is as if a white cloud rested on the treetop, heavy with perfume and alive with bees. One rarely sees, even in spring, a sight more beautiful. It is the supreme moment in the life of this tree.”

My own supreme moment with the trees last spring occurred at the Far Field which wore a fringe of flowering black locust trees. On a large tree covered with blossoms an indigo bunting sang. As if that blue and white vision were not enough, a male cerulean warbler flew in, singing and foraging for insects among the locust flowers. He flitted from branch to branch for the hour I sat nearby watching, presenting me with the perfect ending to a spring which will forever remain in my memory as a banner year for deciduous tree flowers.