Thursday, April 24, 2014

Windy names

April showers may bring May flowers, but March’s winds bring April’s windflowers.

At least, that’s what old-timers believed, not only calling our early spring anemones “windflowers” but scientifically naming them after anemos, the Greek word for wind. In fact, in Greek mythology, Anemone was a breezy nymph who hung out with Zephyr, god of the west wind.

Wood Anemone and Rue-Anemone, two white buttercups of our April woods, could thank the wind for more than their names. Lacking much color or scent in a chilly season when few insects are about, they rely on the wind to disperse their pollen.  

However, the naming gurus seem to have gone awry when labeling our common Rue-Anemone. The plant was long called Anemonella thalictroides, which literally means “a little anemone that looks like a thalictrum” – thalictrum being meadow rue, a summertime wildflower. But two decades ago, scientists reclassified the plant, deciding it really is a meadow rue and calling it Thalictrum thalictroides: “A meadow rue that looks like a meadow rue.”


Monday, April 21, 2014

April’s origin

April has had a bad time of it. Songs bemoan its showers, a poet calls it the “cruelest month,” its length has been cut, and its first day is for fools. Even the origin of its name is uncertain.

In the early Alban calendar, April was the longest month, with 36 days. Various Roman emperors fiddled with its size until Julius Caesar chose the 30 days that stuck. Because April is the time when trees and flowers come to life, many scholars believe its name came from the Latin, aperire, which means “to open.”

Others have pooh-poohed this idea, pointing out that no other month has been named for a condition of nature. Instead, they say, the likely source is a goddess.

These scholars, steeped in dusty mythology of ancient Greece and Rome, maintain that the Romans dedicated this month to Venus, the goddess of love, because April is the month when nature begins its myriad methods of reproduction. The Greek for Venus was Aphrodite, and, the scholars say, that is the root of the name – from Aphrodite to Aphrilis to Aprilis to our April.

Aperire seems so much simpler and more reasonable.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Scilla season

Late March and early April is the season for scilla, a pretty wildflower import that is hardy enough to survive freezing nights and conservative enough not to make a weed of itself.

Scilla siberica is a native of the woodlands of Eurasia. A century or so ago, planting its tiny bulbs was all the rage and today, many old homesteads have sections of lawn that, in early April, turn blue with thousands of small flowers that have spread from those old plantings. If the weather remains cool, the blossoms can last for weeks, providing not only beauty for the eye but nourishment for bees.

Scilla, also known by the rather unattractive name of squill, used to be more common, but some modern owners of antique houses spread weed killers on their lawns, wiping out the old colonies.

They did to scilla what scilla might do to them if they ate it. The word is from the Latin, “to harm,” reflecting the fact that most species are somewhat poisonous – which is actually a boon to gardeners.

It explains why, when so many other flowers are gobbled by the hungry deer, scilla blooms brightly and plentifully – as long as lawns remain poison-free.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

'Ducks' without feathers

A Wood Frog sounds like a duck
You’re walking along a wooded road or a forest path in early spring and off to one side, you hear ducks quacking. Dozens of them, chattering away.

You look, but there are no ducks in sight, though there is water.

But if you look closely, you’ll see small, brownish frogs. Those are your quackers: You are hearing the chorus of spring mating calls of the Wood Frog.

These hardy amphibians crawl out of the earth as soon as the snow melts and the ground thaws. They head for the nearest water, usually a vernal pool surrounded by woods. There they mate and their eggs are deposited underwater.

Vernal pools provide ideal mating grounds for these frogs and Spring Peepers. These ephemeral waters have the advantage of being around in the spring, but are usually gone by late summer. Consequently, they can’t support fish, which would eat the frog eggs and tadpoles. And they last long enough to allow eggs to become frogs.

Scientists say many amphibians seem to be in decline. The good news about Wood Frogs is that their populations appear to be in good shape, even increasing, especially as the former farmlands of our region return to forest, allowing for more vernal pools.

This trend could continue, as long as wise land-use officials see the life-giving value of vernal pools and protect woodlands in which they appear.

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