When I was growing up in Colorado, my countdown to spring began when pitchers and catchers reported for training. It wasn’t warm enough to play baseball where I was, but it would be in six weeks or so. Spring was on the horizon.
Today, I use a different standard to count down to spring: the appearance of the first trout lily.read more
It’s about this time of year that I begin getting distracted on the trail. I stumble over tree roots and rocks more, my attention diverted from the trail itself to three, five, 10 feet into the neighboring terrain. Scanning, constantly. I grow quieter on group hikes; my responses to fellow hikers limited to a delayed “right” or “sure,” wondering later if I offered to bring a main course to a pot luck.
It’s early, I know, not even mid-February. Still, you never know. It’s been relatively warm, sufficiently wet … down there somewhere may be that harbinger of spring that means so much more than a groundhog seeing its shadow. Down there, somewhere, the first budding wildflowers of spring, the season’s true first responder. (Well, first true visual responder; the spring peeper often weeks it out as the first aural hint of the season.)
Tiny, delicate, these early risers desperately need those first rays of the season for energy, to fuel their growth, to survive and prosper. The oaks, the elms, the hickories, the beech of the lofty reaches of a deciduous forest can afford to sleep in; dominators of the forest canopy, they have all summer to hog precious sunlight. Down here on the forest floor it’s a another matter. Spring wildflowers have a narrow window. They must work fast to meet their needs. They have a week, two tops, before the flora a level above leafs out and blocks the sun. Then the level above that an so on up the food chain until the understory — dogwoods, redbuds — begin the massive suck-up of sun, drawing the curtain on the spring wildflower show. But that’s a ways off.
Today, the focus is on the forest floor, in search of the first, delicate droopy mottled leaf that will, shortly, yield an equally delicate yellow petal with maroon pinstripes. That first trout lily is hard to spot, but once it presents itself, a dozen neighbors step forward, then, a little ways up the trail, a dozen more. Or, if you’re not on higher, drier, rocky trail, if you’re hiking a lowland prone to wetness, your first sighting may instead be a spring beauty, a lovely (and yes, tiny) white petaled bloom that is more apt to emerge en masse, as a carpet of white blanketing the forest.
So yes, maybe I am a little ahead of the game (though Dave Cook in his “Piedmont Almanac” writes of the third week in February: “On slopes with southern exposure the first trout lilies and spring beauties might adventurously appear.” But the temperature was in the 70s last week, it’s in the mid-60s as I write. And the sun is unfettered by clouds to do its life-giving thing.
Too early? Perhaps.
But close enough that I can’t take the chance of missing out.
I’ll remember my three hikes over the weekend as such: long stretches of brown interrupted by flashes of the wrong kind of green, the less frequent wrong patches of white and one inspiring — but again, wrong — flash of yellow.
My objective on the trail this past weekend? Find signs of spring.
Ambitious, considering snow, ice and cold had dominated late winter until early last week. Then one 75 degree day, another in the 60s and — consarn it! — where’s spring? According to Carrboro naturalist Dave Cook and his “The Piedmont Almanac,” as early as the third week of February, “the first trout lilies and spring beauties might adventurously bloom” on slopes with southern exposures. By this, the second week of March, Cook writes, we should expect to see trout lilies in their “full glory.” Cook offers a caveat: your results may vary depending upon the weather.
Since second grade, I’ve avidly watched for the first signs of spring, though the cues have changed over the years. Beginning in early February I would rush home after school to rip open the sports section of The Denver Post, then an afternoon paper, and look for the first box score of spring training. Just seeing the early at-bats of Harmon Killebrew and Moose Skowran made me feel 10
degrees warmer — and realize that if it was warm enough to play baseball in Florida and Arizona, the grass would soon be greening in Colorado.
I still get a tingle hearing that pitchers and catchers have reported, but my new bellwethers for spring is rooted in nature: the first delicate yellow blooms of the trout lily, its petals resembling a preacher imploring his congregation to rise, the spring beauty, its cluster of tiny white and sometimes pink-tinged petals like Lilliputian satellite dishes.
Because of their numbers, the spring beauty is easier to spot. The trout lily is more reclusive, and because it stands just a half foot expends most of its height simply poking through winter’s leaf litter.
Several years back, near the end of a winter thaw, I tried to get Mike Dunn, naturalist extraordinaire now retired from the N.C. Museum of Natural Science, to head out to Umstead with me in search of trout lilies. I figured Mike would be in; every January he drops whatever he’s doing when the first warm rain of the year falls and acts as safety patrol for salamanders crossing the road in his Redbud neighborhood above the Haw River.
“It’s January,” he said. By his tone I knew not to pursue the matter.
So Saturday and Sunday, on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail along Falls Lake, along the Eno River between Pleasant Green and Pump Station, at Umstead State Park, I kept my eyes glued to the forest floor. I saw the blue flower of a thistle (I once posted a photo of such and received the ire of a purist who noted that, one, it was a weed, and two, it was not a native species). I spotted a lovely yellow bloom of daffodils (an ornamental I can’t take seriously thanks to Bullwinkle) just down the hill from a long-abandoned homestead, and I heard the encouraging, and the same time melancholy, call of the chorus frog.
Signs of spring, granted. But not the resounding crack-of-the-bat, spring-is-here assurance offered by the trout lily and spring beauty. Like a pitcher waiting on his catcher, I wait for spring to send me the right sign.
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GetHiking! A Welcome to Spring
Interested in searching for signs of spring? Join us for A Welcome to Spring, a new GetHiking! program that starts March 25 and runs through May 20. Every Wednesday morning at 10 a.m., we will hike a different trail in the North Raleigh/Wake Forest area searching for signs of spring. To assist in this effort you’ll get a weekly enewsletter that, in addition to providing helpful hiking tips and resources, and a recap of the previous week’s hike, will include a preview of the upcoming hike focusing on the newest emerging sign of spring we’re likely to see.
Learn more about this fee program and sign up for GetHiking! A Welcome to Spring by visiting GetHiking! Triangle.
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