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.
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. The Black-throated Green Warbler is a bird that winters in Central America and migrates north to breed in coniferous forests of Canada and down the spine of the Appalachians in our hardwood forests.
Even the spring warblers that are “just passing through” are churning with increasing amounts of hormones bubbling through their bodies, resulting in an exuberance of song. Although they will not mate until they reach the northern US 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. That’s the wonderful thing about spring in the mountains—if you miss the blooming here in Asheville, just travel up in elevation a few thousand feet and you will get to experience it again as the season creeps up the mountainsides.
Overhead in the celestial skies, the shifting position of our planet in its springtime orbit gives us new images on a dark Western North Carolina 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 in April at 9 p.m. to see it.
Ah, spring. Hold summer back as long as you can.
Our Favorite Wildflower Guides
• Wildflowers of the Smokies by Peter White
• Great Smoky Mountains Wildflowers: When and Where to Find Them by Carlos C. Campbell, Aaron John Sharp, Robert W. Hutson and William F. Hutson
Laura and Hal Mahan are owners of The Compleat Naturalist, located at 2 Brook Street in the Historic Biltmore Village. To learn more, visit CompleatNaturalist.com or call 828.274.5430.