Exploring the Many Colors of Spring Time
April was a month of exploration for me. Despite the chilly temperatures and frequent dreary, rainy days I found plenty of time to get out in the great outdoors of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. I took the time to explore wooded trails and conservation lands previously unknown to me and discovered, again, why I enjoy hiking in the early spring of April.
April weather is fickle. It can suddenly be very warm with temperatures jumping into the 70s or it can be like this year – cool, cloudy, a bit rainy and even snowy. Despite the weather, there is no stopping the cycle of nature. The first colors of new life have begun to appear again in the woods, heralding spring and the slow advance to the summer solstice.
One of the great things about April and early May hiking is the ability to see into the forest. The forest’s secrets reveal themselves before the full cover of greenery casts its shroud. But there is still plenty of green with lichen covering the gray rock outcroppings and the evergreen conifers. At this time of year, those greens seem to pop even more.
This time of year is also wonderful for catching site of the local fauna. Birds are easier to see in the trees. I’m always listening for their spring courtship calls and trying to identify the lonely males singing from the treetops. Vernal pools are full of life, and I check to see if spotted salamanders and frogs have already visited to deposit their eggs. Black flies, deer flies and mosquitoes are not abundant yet, though beware of ticks now lurking in the underbrush. Don’t forget to spray your boots and legs with repellent that includes DEET as one of the ingredients.
On these early spring hikes, I look up often. I look to the treetops to find the first blush of red flowers appearing on red maple trees, especially in wetland areas along streams, rivers, swamps and ponds. The blooms of most hardwoods have yet to bud, and the red maple stands out as first color of spring. I could make out the swelling buds at the branch tips of the oak, birch, hickory, ash and sugar maple, but they are still a week or more behind the red maples.
Unfortunately, it was also easy to pick out the oaks that did not survive recent successive defoliations from gypsy moth caterpillars. The bare branches devoid of new buds signaled mortality and the slow descent back to the earth. The life- giving sun, no longer shaded by leaves, is again reaching the forest floor where new sprouts will soon appear.
Looking below the treetops to the mid-level of the forest is where you see the first green of shrubs and bushes. Here we are reminded again of the unfortunate truth in the amount of invasive plants taking over the understory of our region’s woods and roadsides. The first green you see along the road is typically Japanese barberry, which gets an early boost of photosynthesis as it out-competes our native plants for sun and soil.
During my hikes in April when I came to wetlands and along stream edges, I also looked down on the forest floor for two of my favorite plants to emerge in early April. On one hike I found clusters of trout lily plants along the edge of a stream, and nearby I found the brownish-purple and green horn of skunk cabbage rising from rich wet soil. I plan to return later this spring when the trout lily blooms emerge, and the dark green leaves of the skunk cabbage carpet the ground.
As we get deeper into May, I will be looking to the hills and valleys when our region’s flora will bloom and leaves unfurl, reminding us again that we live within an emerald green island comprised of 84 percent forests and farms, yet surrounded by the ever-expanding metropolitan areas of the northeast.
I especially enjoy viewing a hillside of trees just as the leaves begin to appear and the tree flowers are in bloom. The valleys look softer with a wide palette of pastel colors and, though lacking the brilliant colors of autumn, inspire us with their fleeting shades of emerging renewal.
It is during this short window of time in early May when you can tell from a distance the species of trees by the color of their early leaves and blooms. Seemingly in the blink of an eye, the flowers will be gone, the leaves full-size, and the varied hues change to a single shade of bright green mixed with the darker green of conifers, such as white pine and hemlock.
One of my favorite publications is Northern Woodlands and a recent edition included an article “Tree Flowers Color the Hills” by naturalist and writer Susan Shea. Here is a link to the article that describes in detail the many ways trees flower.
I hope you’ve been enjoying the opportunity to get our and explore our forests and trails. May is here and our region’s deciduous trees are beginning to bloom. Take the time to stop and look, to revel in the many colors they reveal as blooms and new foliage usher into the changing season.
Edwin Way Teale wrote “The world’s favorite season is the spring. All things seem possible in May.” His words ring true today as we enjoy May and consider all the possible ways we can enjoy, share and pass on this beautiful place we call home – The Last Green Valley.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for 35 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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