Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Vernal Pools

In nature, little is wasted, not even puddles. At this time of year, nature’s puddles – officially known as “vernal pools” – are teeming with life.

Vernal pools form in the winter, last through the spring and dry up in summer. Found throughout our woodlands in sizes large and small, they are hotbeds of early spring activity. Frogs and salamanders crawl out of the forest’s leaf litter and make their way to the water to frolic and mate. Soon the pool is full of eggs, then tadpoles and salamander larvae.

To amphibians, the pool’s benefit is big: There are no fish to eat them or their offspring. The risk, however, is drought. The water must last long enough for the tads to reach adulthood. Clearly, the benefit outweighs the risk, for our woods still ring out each April with choruses of the popular vernal pool patron, Spring Peepers.

A bigger threat, however, is man. Too few know what vernal pools are, much less their importance, and no laws protect them. Many are threatened by development.

Dr. Seuss’s Lorax spoke for the trees. Fortunately, we have a few wise conservationists and savvy zoning commissioners who speak for the pools.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Swamp carcasses

The spring air is full of rich earthy scents, especially over our swamps. Often leading the wetland aromas is the skunk cabbage.

Many know but few admire this big, fetid fellow. Yet, it is one of our most fascinating wildflowers, finely tuned by evolution to deal with a harsh time of year. As it rises in late winter and early spring, the plant burns carbs – just like exercising humans – heating up and melting the frozen earth around it. Once up and blooming, the flower head – protected by a reddish-brown hood – can be as warm as 70 degrees when the air outside is 30.

The hood’s hue serves a second purpose: It’s the color of carrion. Flies are the first insects of the new season. Searching for the thawing carcasses of winter-killed creatures, they are drawn to the color and the smell, thinking the cabbage is a corpse. The plant’s warmth is a plus, encouraging the flies to roam about the ball of flowers, unwittingly picking up pollen to carry to the next mouth-watering skunk cabbage down the line.

The tricks may stink, but they work.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Cowslip season

April offered old-time farmers a free treat that could warm their stomachs, brighten their rooms, and even line their pockets. We call them marsh marigolds, but New Englanders knew them as cowslips.

Their yellow flowers filled wetlands, offering the first big blooms of the season and a chance to decorate winter-weary homes.

They were also popular as a spinach-like dish. William Hamilton Gibson wrote in 1880: “The eager farmer’s wife fills her basket with the succulent leaves she has been waiting for so long; for they’ll tell you in New England that ‘they ain’t noth’n’ like cowslips for a mess o’ greens.’” Being bitter like most buttercups, they had to be well-boiled first. That bitterness, incidentally, is protection from today’s voracious deer.

There was gold in those yellow flowers, too. Enterprising farmers picked bunches of cowslips to send to nearby cities where boys would sell them on street corners to people eager for spring blossoms.

The plant’s name sounds romantically agrarian, but isn’t quite. Cowslip, named for a European barnyard weed, is from the Old English, meaning “cow slop” – that is to say, cow crap.