And frosts are slain and flowers begotten
And in green underwood and cover
Blossom by blossom the spring begins.
Algernon Charles Swinburne
March is the drabbest month of the year in the Midwest. The snow has melted revealing vast expanses of brown grass and a winter’s accumulation of trash that’s been hidden beneath its white blanket. March is completely unpredictable—warm and sunny in the 50’s or even 60’s one day, cold and raw the next. Rain, wind, snow, and sometimes ice storms are part of the March package. Some years Spring starts in March; other years, she stubbornly waits until mid-April.
But spring is in the air, literally. On warm evenings one can smell spring, bringing back memories of every spring one has ever lived. Green tips of plants poke through the wet soil; the male cardinal (which has been here all winter) has started his cheery whistle—his courtship song—once again. The robins have begun to arrive; the snowbirds will leave by mid-April. The cacophony of great flocks of ducks, geese, and sandhill cranes flying north to Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Canada brings us to the window to marvel at whatever primal instinct causes them to do this every March, flying high in their perfect V-formation.
Harbingers of Spring
Pussy Willow (Salix discolor), every child’s favorite symbol of Spring, opens its furry gray catkins at the beginning of March or some years as early as February. Easily found on spring walks, it grows in shrubby marshes and wetlands throughout the Midwest, frequently in the company of other willows and Red-osier Dogwood. With permission, we cut armfuls of branches to bring Spring indoors. (The Pussy Willow sold in flower shops is usually Salix caprea, a European import.) Salix discolor grows into an attractive, multi-stem shrub, 10-15’ tall, that is suitable to grow on home grounds in moist to wet areas. It doesn’t appear to be available at nurseries, but stems root quickly in water.
A source of ornament, sentiment, shade, and aspirin, the willows are a rich part of our history and landscape.
Kane County Plants & Natural Areas
The round, furry gray catkins of Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) are the first to appear in spring, in February, even before those of Pussy Willow. The catkins soon turn into delightful, fuzzy, maroon and gray dangling caterpillars. Quaking Aspen is the most abundant tree on our continent, found in colonies in wetlands, woodland edges, and railroad tracks. Its chalky white bark is conspicuous all year.
This photo was taken at Bluff Spring Fen on March 17, 2009.
The very first herbaceous plant to bloom is the Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). It creates its own heat, melting the snow that covers it—its unusual flowers may emerge as early as February. The yellow-green flowers, arranged in a knoblike spadix inside a green and purple-brown mottled, hood-like spathe, are attractive to early pollinating insects and to those of us who are eager for the earliest signs of spring. Skunk Cabbage grows in colonies in fens and springy places.
Another early bloomer is appropriately named Harbinger-of-spring (Erigenia bulbosa). Umbels of tiny white flowers with conspicuous reddish brown anthers start to bloom at the end of March (the speckled appearance gives it another common name—Pepper-and-salt). Less than 10” tall, it blooms above not quite open divided foliage. It is found in rich Sugar Maple mesic woods, most often on the east side of Lake Michigan. (I have to confess that I’ve never seen it)
While the Black Alder (Alnus glutinosa) from Europe has become naturalized along our rivers, the native, Illinois state-endangered Speckled Alder (Alnus rugosa or incana) is rare.
Easy to recognize, its smooth, dark brown bark is dotted with conspicuous lenticels that give it a “speckled” appearance.
St, Charles Park District 14 March 2011
In the early spring it is adorned with drooping catkins and small, dark brown, seed-bearing cones.
A branch silhouetted over the Fox River.
St. Charles Park District 22 March 2009
Usually multi-trunked, it grows up to 15’ tall. It is found in sunny, moist thickets in the wild in the company of other moisture-loving shrubs such as Buttonbush, Red-osier and Silky Dogwood, and Kalm’s St. John’s Wort. It is available at native plant nurseries and is striking in the home landscape—plant it in groups in wet or moist areas next to streams or ponds. While not a legume, it fixes nitrogen in the soil and makes it available to other nearby plants.
Dense clusters of pendulous, reddish green flowers dot the branches of Silver Maple (Acer saccarinum) early in March–seldom noticed because the tree is so tall. In the wild it is found in floodplains and near ponds.