Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Ellen Rathbone: The Vagaries of Spring

How many of you cringed when you heard yesterday’s forecast for up to a foot of snow here in the Adirondacks? And how many merely smiled and said “of course…this is the Adirondacks”? However you look at the meterological foibles of the North Country, you have to admit that living up here keeps us on our toes.

Now, I should confess that I am personally responsible for our latest snow storm. Yes, it was I, for last weekend I foolishly decided to plant my peas. But, in my defense, “they” say you can plant peas as soon as the ground can be worked, and this year that could’ve been March! Peas are supposed to be pretty hardy, though, so I’m sure this white coat the ground is now wearing will do very little harm to the hard round peas that are an inch or so beneath the surface.

But what about all the other trees and shrubs and non-woody plants that greened up early? I took this photo on my way in to work this morning – I love the way the new green leaves stand out palely against the white snow. It’s a lovely color. But will they survive? How much damage will they suffer? I suspect that since the temperatures did not drop radically (we were only 30 degrees Fahrenheit last night), they will come through okay.

Many plants are perfectly well-adapted to the seasonal vagaries of spring. The next time you are out wandering the woods this spring, take a look at the stems and leaves of the earliest bloomers. Odds are you will find that at least some part of these plants is covered with hairs. On some these hairs are fine and a challenge to see, while others are covered with a robust downiness that looks downright furry.

Take coltsfoot, for example. Coltsfoot is probably the earliest “wildflower” blooming around here. Usually not open until about the second week of April in my neck of the woods, this year it presented its first blossoms on the 4th. One might be led to think that this flower had been fooled by the ridiculously warm weather we had in late March and early April, but closer examination of the plant shows that it is prepared for any cold weather emergency. Each stem is covered with overlapping scales as well short hairs, both of which help insulate the plant from the wildly erratic temperatures of spring.

Some plants merely close up their flowers when the temperatures head southward. I imagine this is a strategy to preserve nectar for pollinators. After all, bees and flies and other pollinators won’t be flying around when the mercury falls – they are “cold-blooded” creatures that need warmth in order to move, and if they aren’t flying around looking for food, then they won’t be doing any pollinating. The flowers are better off closing up the shop until the sun comes back out and the customers return.

I was driving through central New York yesterday, in the snow, past all those apple orchards that make this state a major player in the apple market. I didn’t see many trees in bloom, but then it was snowing pretty heavily and I was keeping my eyes mostly on the road ahead. But I know that many fruit growers have been concerned as their fruit trees burst into flower earlier and earlier each year, only to get walloped by a “late season” snow storm (which in truth isn’t really late – everything else is early). When that happens, there isn’t much they can do, for apple blossoms are not designed for freezing temperatures.

Already, though, the snow is melting – large, heavy clods are dropping from branches and roofs. By the weekend, the weather prognosticators say the temps will be soaring up to the seventies! All this snow will be gone – a mere memory recorded in photographs and on blogs. The plants that were prepared will continue to blossom and grow. Those that weren’t will either shrivel up and die or will rally their forces and try to produce a new set of flowers/leaves. It’s the cycle of life. They don’t agonize over it. You either adapt and move on, or your genes do not make it into the future. Hm…sounds like a lesson to me.

Related Stories


Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.





5 Responses

  1. Woodswalker says:
  2. Anonymous says:

Wait! Before you go:

Catch up on all your Adirondack
news, delivered weekly to your inbox