Winter’s Whispers of Spring – by Pam Stewart
If you are not looking carefully you may miss a brilliant scarlet February bloom! Though brilliant, it is tiny, consisting only of a stigma and style protruding from a small brown bud on a Hazelnut twig. The easiest way to find this one eighth inch blossom is to look for a shrub with two inch long, pale yellowish green catkins, dangling like little caterpillars. These are the male flowers of Hazelnuts, also known as Filberts. The female flowers are usually on the same twigs as the catkins, often near the tip.
These small scarlet flowers were in bloom February 16th near Erbie Campground in the Buffalo National River. The flowers, once pollinated, will produce delicious nuts, a wildlife food source, often eaten by squirrels and deer before they can be harvested for human snacks.
(Alders may have similar catkins this time of year, but can be distinguished by persistent female cones from the previous year.)
Harbinger of Spring is another early bloomer, often overlooked. Only one or two inches high, an umbel of white flowers an inch or less across with reddish-brown anthers, emerge from under last year’s fallen leaves. These too were in bloom February 16th at Erbie along a shady hillside trail.
On that same February date Vernal Witch Hazel was in bloom, announcing itself with a wonderful sweet spicy aroma. The shrub might be mistaken for a scraggly Forsythia with stringy yellowish orange petals, but the odor can be noted from many yards away.
Soon the small globular buds of Spicebush will open with clusters of yellow flowers, each cluster only one half to three fourths inch across, with male and female occurring on separate plants. Male flowers have a fluffier appearance due to the many stamens, per flower. By autumn shiny red berries will have formed which are relished by migrating birds on “rest stops” in Buffalo National River, designated as an Important Bird Area. Leaves of the shrub, which expand after the flowers, are the main food for the beautiful Spice Bush Swallowtail Butterfly caterpillar.
Search for these quiet whispers of Spring’s approach before they are obscured by leafy greens and Spring’s riot of color.