By Laura & Hal Mahan
March sets the stage, tempting us to believe that spring has begun. But it is April that gives spring full expression here in the mountains.
Early wildflowers take advantage of the full sunlight penetrating to the forest floor before the canopy trees leaf out. In late March, the leaves of bloodroot can be seen in rich woods and the tiny-flowered bluets already may be blooming in open areas.
In April, though, wildflowers begin to get serious, poking through the soil with more energy than any of their seeds could have imagined possible. Trillium, Solomon’s seal, violets and many, many others initiate the real spring.
The show is not limited to the forest floor as some flowering trees burst forth. The invasive, non-native Paulownia, or princess tree, blooms before leafing out with its clusters of large, violet flowers along freeways and other open areas. Although it doesn’t really belong here, you must admit that this exotic from Asia does put on quite a show.
Flowering dogwood is an April blooming native tree with four large, showy, white bracts that surround a cluster of small individual flowers. The pollen of these tiny flowers provides an important early food source for some of our native bees, such as mining bees and sweat bees. We also love to take a dogwood inflorescence and study it under a lowpower stereomicroscope or hand lens to see what other small invertebrates are finding a home there.
Overhead, the songbirds return to the mountains. The Blue-headed Vireo is one of the earliest migrants to arrive, making the trip north from its wintering grounds along the southeast coast all the way to Central America. Later the warblers and thrushes arrive, many having traveled nearly 2,000 miles in one month from their tropical winter homes.
The woodlands surrounding the Blue Ridge Parkway resound with bird songs. “Trees, trees, whispering trees,” utters the Black-throated Green Warbler. “Teacher, teacher, teacher!” sounds the Ovenbird, with each “word” louder than the last.
Even the spring warblers “just passing through” are churning with increasing amounts of hormones, resulting in an exuberance of song. Although they will not mate until they reach the northern U.S. or Canada, their songs indicate a readiness they have not experienced for nearly a year.
Everywhere in April, spring’s arrival is heralded. In temporary woodland ponds, salamanders bred several weeks ago and now their tadpoles are everywhere. In the deep woods, adult mourning cloak butterflies are emerging from hibernation. Even on the higher altitude “balds” in the mountains, plants are beginning to green up.
Overhead in the celestial skies, the shifting position of our planet in its springtime orbit gives us new images on a dark WNC night. The Little Dipper, with Polaris at the tip of its handle, is now high in the east, and Gemini has shifted slightly westward. Increasingly entering the spring sky is the longest constellation, Hydra the Water Serpent. Look to the south on April 16 at 9 p.m. to see it.
Ah, spring. Hold summer back as long as you can.
Laura and Hal Mahan are owners of The Compleat Naturalist, located at 2 Brook Street, Biltmore Village. Learn more at CompleatNaturalist.com