Sights of Spring

Thoreau wrote about the brilliant colors of New England’s fall foliage, but I wondered, what about winter?  And I found such a wild mix of impressions during my winter runs:  sun dazzling against fresh rime ice, clouds rolling in and smothering the world in dim light — one hike was a slog through sand-like snow that spilled out from underfoot and dribbled down the rocks, another a desperate scramble over sheets of ice, and then a storm rolled in with pelting sleet and lightning.  Even at night there was a huge variety of sights: solitary farm lights sprinkled across the darkened plains, snowflakes sparkling in the headlamp’s beam, moonlight shining on snow-packed trails so bright you could run without lights, or the crescent moon rising above a distant mountain ridge and glowing in such a strange mix of orange and purple it seemed like a hue that’d never been seen before.

But now it was spring — and everything was changing so quickly, it seemed if you blinked you might miss it all.

So I kept my eyes open as best I could, and here’s a collection of spring impressions, things I noticed while hiking the Long Path along the Hudson River and in the Catskills.

One of the wonderful images of spring is the billowing green forest canopy, and the mottled textures that result as not only fresh leaves, but also flowers and seeds emerge in waves.  From a distance, the impression is pastel, but up-close it’s sometimes hard to see what particular structures are causing this impression, because many of them are too high up to see.  That’s where young trees and low-hanging branches come into play, as well as the debris that litters the path and the forest floor.

Walking along the trail one morning, my eye was caught by red sparks floating in the air.  These turned out to be brand new leaves sprouting from White Oak saplings (Quercus alba).  These leaves will soon turn green, and then come fall, they’ll turn red once again.

I noticed that other leaves started out in red hues, for example, young beech leaves growing on tiny saplings:


Sauntering further along the trail, I saw that the ground was littered with young leaves and flower strings of the Red Oak (Quercus rubra).  These were the staminate or male flowers, which shed pollen and then fall to the ground, whereas the female or pistillate flowers, which will eventually develop into acorns, are quite small and look similar to buds.

Fresh leaves were just emerging from buds on young maples, the leaves tender and almost translucent, with well-defined and pointy lobes and the rest of the leaf just needing a little time to expand into its full summer shape.

Underneath the maple trees, the path was littered with spent flowers.  These were presumably the male flowers which had released pollen, while the female flowers develop into the seed-carrying fruits known as samara’s which whirl to the ground in due course like tiny helicopters.  Maples, however, are actually more complicated than this:  they are “monoecious,” meaning that a single tree can have both male and female flowers, and in some cases the flowers themselves contain a mix of male and female organs.

I continue to be impressed by the Red Maple (Acer rubrum), which turns bright red not only in the fall, but also during the spring, with young leaves, samaras, and flowers all shining spectacularly scarlet.  During April, these trees turn red with flowers, and then in May, from the profusion of samaras hanging from the branches.  The samaras of the Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) are brown, and the trees’ canopies have a mottled green-brown appearance during the spring.

If you’re hiking barefoot, you won’t miss the spikey “gumballs” of the Sweetgum tree (Liquidambar).  Each gumball consists of up to 60 separate seed capsules.  The spikes aren’t sharp, and you won’t hurt your foot if you step on one, but they do feel prickly.  While walking along the Long Path near the Hudson River, I noticed both the gumballs and the tree’s delicate flowers, in some cases attached to tiny young leaves displaying the Sweetgum’s distinctive 5-pointed star shape.

I picked up a familiar-looking seed-capsule, but couldn’t place it — until I saw the same thing in Central Park and remembered that it’s the seed capsule of an Elm tree.  While there are many elms in Central Park, they are relatively rare elsewhere, having largely succumbed to the Dutch Elm Disease.  It’s interesting to note that a healthy elm is growing in the Palisades and on my next trip there I will try to find it again.

Seed capsule for an Elm

During my walk in the Palisades, spring flowers were growing in profusion, lighting up the ground like fields of stars.  There were the familiar Spring Beauties, as well as violets, Wild Garlic, Purple Periwinkle, Lilac, and the Rhodotypos, which is a member of the rose family native to Asia.

Then I saw the dirt path was covered with white petals and looking up I discovered a variety of pear tree with the characteristic five-petaled white flowers in bloom.

Another male flower that litters the trails this time of year, both in the southern stretches of the Hudson Valley as well as farther north in the Catksills, is the birch catkin.  Below is a catkin from the yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis).  Here and there along the path were splotches of bright yellow; this must happen when the catkins are knocked down by wind prior to shedding their pollen.  There’s so much pollen blowing through the air that when it rains, you find yellow stains on the rocks.  I had always thought the species got its common name from the brassy-yellow colored bark of young trees, but the pollen is such a bright yellow color, perhaps that is the source.

Yellow birch catkin and pollen staining the stone
Birch pollen stains on the summit of Slide Mountain

It takes spring a few extra weeks to reach the Catskills’ high ridges.  I saw young leaves of the Mountain Ash (Sorbus americana) just emerging from buds, and strings of flowers falling across the brand new leaves of Moose Maple (Acer pensylvanicum).

The upper elevations of the Catskills taught me something new:  that coniferous trees have flowers, too (or “strobili” to use the technical term).  I noticed points of light on the upper branches of a Balsam Fir tree — at first I thought this was new growth along the ends of the branches, but upon inspection discovered they were young cones, some light green, others turning purple.  But then, as I glanced around the clearing, it became apparent that cone-like objects were also sprouting from the undersides of branches.  These were not cones, but actually flowers, as they crumbled to the touch and dislodged clouds of pollen.

Balsam Fir flowers

Having seen the flowers of maple, birch, oak, and fir, now I looked around for Black Mountain Cherry (Prunus serotina) and finally found them on the shoulder of Black Dome mountain.  A little later this summer, these white flowers will have turned into small dark fruits that will end up littering the forest floor.

Spring will soon end, and summer will be with us, and forests will settle down into a more static existence (or at least it may appear as such) until fall approaches, and the leaves begin to change color once again.  Down in the valleys, some of the last — and most spectacular — trees to show their flowers are the Black Locusts (Robinia pseudoacacia):  clusters of white flowers cascade from the branches, giving the tree a frothy texture, and perfuming the air with a cloying sweet fragrance.

Black Locust flowers

This report barely scratches the surface.  Not mentioned is the tiny red flower I discovered while struggling up a steep rock ledge guarding the summit of Kaaterskill High Peak, the trout and bead lilies lining the path, the wild mix of leaf types now sprouting from the ground, and of course the countless species I never noticed.  There will be more to see and report on come summer.

Sights of Spring

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