I wonder if the sap is stirring yet,
If wintry birds are dreaming of a mate,
If frozen snowdrops feel as yet the sun
And crocus fires are kindling one by one:
sing robin, sing;
I am sore in doubt concerning Spring.
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 70’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 Wild Plants & Natural Areas
The round, furry gray catkins of Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) are the first to appear in spring, sometimes as early as February, even before those of Pussy Willow. The catkins soon turn into delightful, fuzzy, maroon and gray dangling caterpillars.
Quaking Aspen is found in every county in the Chicago area, mostly in low ground, but conversely in sandy areas, as well. This colony I have photographed is next to a railroad track, in the town where I live. (These and several Bur Oak trees were cut down a few weeks ago–it seems they interfered with truck traffic.)
Its tall, straight trunk, covered with a whitish bark, marked by black horizontal scars and prominent black warty patches, is topped by an upright oval crown. The round, glossy green leaves, dull beneath, become a striking golden-yellow in autumn. Its flattened petioles allow the leaves to flutter and rustle in the slightest breeze. It colonizes through its root system cloning itself into large groves.
Every summer, when I was a child, we went to my grandpa’s cottage on Popple Lake, near Chippewa Falls in Wisconsin for our summer vacation. Popple is a local term in the Upper Midwest for Quaking or Trembling Aspen .
American Hazelnut (Corylus americana)
“One cloudy April day, when threatening rain caused the west to be in a dramatic mood, we were scurrying along to reach some shelter before the worst might happen. A lone hazel bush, perhaps the last of a great colony, made us pause on our way. Why it had been spared I do not know, but there it was in a festive spring outfit. We were astounded by the attraction this simple plant possessed. The secret of it all was its yellow catkins against the threatening purple clouds in the west, bringing out their exquisite beauty…I had known the hazel since boyhood days, but I had lived almost an average lifetime before I saw its real significance and its charm. From that time on, a hazel bush, backed by the purple branches of our native plum, has graced a corner of my garden, and every spring I wait for the spring song of its catkins.”
From early-to-mid-March to mid-April. golden pollen spills from the pendulous male catkins, lighting up savannas, woodlands, and fencerows. Growing 8-10’ tall, American Hazelnut forms colonies by means of root sprouts. It makes a splendid hedge, or combine it with American Plum (Prunus americana ) as Jens Jensen suggests. I’ve searched in vain in the Forest Preserves of northern Kane County where I live to see it in its native habitat. (I once found a Hazelnut growing in the midst of a tangle of Buckthorn in the backyard of a client, much to my delight.)
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.
With our suddenly warm weather that started last Tuesday, Winter Aconite (Eranthus hymelis) has emerged from the cold earth, and is already in full bloom. Winter Aconite is native to Europe, but it came along to this garden via some trillium I transplanted from my old garden. A member of the Buttercup family, its golden cups are the earliest perennial to bloom in our area, sometimes as early as late February. Plant it under deciduous trees–a spring ephemeral, it blooms in full sun in spring and then its flowers and leaves disappear until next spring. The tubers increase making an ever enlarging circle. Easy to transplant, they can be moved to other locations after bloom or given away to friends.
I have only a tiny patch of Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) next to my back door, but they are always welcome in earliest spring. Another early bloomer native to Europe, it, too, is an ephemeral that should be planted in sweeping drifts under deciduous trees. It can be situated within a matrix of sedges. It does increase, but is not considered invasive.
The temperature was In the 60’s this past week and 70’s is predicted for this afternoon–hooray! I heard the Cardinal’s whistle a few days ago. I also saw a pair of robins on Friday hopping along in my grassy parkway. What do robins find to eat this early? No insects or worms yet. The only thing for them to eat, as far as i know, are persistent berries which still cling to shrubs and trees. I have a few rose hips on my Illinois Rose (Rosa setigera) and my Early Rose (Rosa blanda), but, alas, the robins didn’t find them. Does anyone else have information on how robins survive March when they arrive here? Please share with us.
Illinois Rose with rose hips on trellis. Note previous summer’s robins’ nest on top of the trellis.
March doesn’t zap us with spring, as do April and May. We have to look for it, but it is there as Nature starts her inexorable cycle once more. Stay tuned.