On March 18th, the first Spring Peepers have been heard around Harlemville! Did you know that the makers of such big sound are tiny little frogs, about an inch long? Unlike Green and Bullfrog, who pass the cold season in mud below water, Spring Peepers pass the winter in the forest, hibernating under bark or rocks. They congregate near ponds and other wetlands for reproduction early in the spring, and after laying their tiny, inconspicuous eggs, retreat back into the upland forest for the rest of the year.
Spring Peeper on a blade of grass. This picture is from Conrad's archive. Actually finding these tiny creatures is not as easy as it might seem (have you ever tried to follow their call to the source???), and for us has been more a matter of luck than deliberate effort.
Today, we went scouting for signs of spring flora on the forest floor just on the other side of Ben Ocean’s bridge. The scene is still overwhelmingly brown from the dense leaf litter. I like this stage, because looking for signs of green is almost like an Easter egg hunt. The few green plants that dare showing themselves this early in the season are rewardingly distinct from each other and really quite easily identified, although none of them has any flowers, yet…
It is well worth going out and looking for yourself during this period of calm before the spring flowers begin exploding on us!
The forest near Ben Ocean's bridge. The forest floor is still dominated by a brown layer of leaf litter. Signs of green are few. Note the bucket on the Sugar Maple near the left margin of the photo. This forest patch is Hawthorne Valley's "Sugar Bush".
Just on the other side, uphill from the trail, the forest floor is dominated by leaf litter, as well. More Sugar Maples are being tapped. The two bushes in the foreground are rare Leatherwood (Dirca palustris) shrubs. A total of about 20 individuals grow right in this area, but nowhere else in the valley. We have found this species in no more than five other places in the entire county. It is heavily browsed on by deer and might have a hard time surviving the currently high deer populations. Look for lovely yellow flowers on these bushes within a month, before the leaves come out!
Following the trail south (towards the BabaYaga house) a little ways, we found several examples of this grass-like plant growing on the rock outcrops left of the trail. It is a Broadleaf Sedge (Carex platyphylla), a woodland-loving cousin of a group of plants usually associated with open, swampy places. In fact, Eastern North America is one of the global hotspots for woodland sedges, harboring an exceptionally high diversity of these plants. The Broadleaf Sedge kept last year's leaves green all through the winter, allowing it to photosynthezise during warm winter days and now, early in spring. Soon, it will sprout new leaves and allow last year's to decompose. In June, you will be able to observe its inconspicuous flowers presented on long, leafless stalks.
These beautifully patterned leaves belong to Wild Stonecrop (Sedum ternatum), a plant native to regions a bit south of here but often escaped from gardens and maintaining themselves well in the woods. Keep your eyes open for their beautiful cream-colored, star-shaped flowers later in the spring: will the number of petals reflect the three-ranked leaf arrangement?
One of the most distinct mosses on the rocks next to the trail is the Tree Moss (Climacium dendroides). Mosses might dry up a bit during winter, but as soon as they are moistened by melting snow or rain, they become green and active again. Look a bit closer to see how many different kinds of smaller mosses you can distinguish growing on the rocks!
This "early greener" is an immigrant from Europe. Its name "Celandine" comes from a French word for swallow, reminding us that it will flower just around the time when the swallows return. When you find one of these, break off a piece of leaf and look for the bright yellow milky sap, which characterizes this plant as a member of the Poppy Family. This milky sap has a number of traditional medicinal uses.
Another inconspicious, yet easily recognized presenter of green leaves is Dame's Rocket (Hesperis matronalis). This is also a European plant that has escaped cultivation and graces roadside ditches and floodplain forests with its white, pink, and purple flowers in late spring. Often, you can still see last year's flower stalk emerging from the rosette of winter leaves. Dame's Rocket is often called "Phlox" because of the similarity of its flowers with those of true Phlox. When in doubt, count the number of petals: Dame's Rocket has the four petals typical of the Brassica Family, while true Phlox (which is much rarer) has five petals.