Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Treetop visitors

Spring’s leafless trees are a far cry from Shakespeare's bare ruined choirs of winter. Where late the sweet birds sang is springing to life with song. Those branches are the hotels and summer homes of countless migrants.

The earliest of the tree flowers are blooming. Where there are flowers, there are usually insects. And where “bugs” are, birds are sure to follow. In fact, insects drawn to the early-flowering trees are important food for warblers, tanagers and other small migrants heading north in the weeks to come. Some will stop here to nest for the summer while many others eat and run, heading farther north.

For bird watchers the leafless limbs of early spring are a blessing. The scores of colorful arrivals are much easier to spot without lots of green blocking the view.

So instead of watching spring arrive on the thermometer, dust off the binoculars and point them to the passing parade of treetop visitors.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Why this weed is a winner

Got one of those March colds? In the old days, you might have turned to a March weed for help.

Many roadsides will soon be lined with Coltsfoot, a wildflower whose bright yellow blooms are often mistaken for dandelions.

Although it’s colorful and among the earliest and hardiest of the spring wildflowers, Coltsfoot was imported from Europe not for its beauty, but for its alleged abilities as a cough medicine. Its generic name, Tussilago, means “cough dispeller,” and for centuries its juices were used like Pertussin or Robitussin (notice those coughing “tusses”) from the drug store. Ailing New England children in the 19th Century were fed Coltsfoot drops, made of plant extract and sugar.

Don’t do it today, however. Modern research suggests ingesting Coltsfoot may cause liver tumors.

Instead, enjoy Coltsfoot for a different characteristic. The import has adapted to some of the worst soils North America can offer. The most likely place to see it is in within a foot or two of highway pavement – soil permeated with winter sand and salt, oils from asphalt and cars, and, yes, litter.

If there’s a terrain in need of beautifying, it’s our roadsides, especially in spring when we are hungry for outdoor color. This post-winter weed is a winner.