The Awakening Land

SUNDAY, MARCH 25, 2012

The first thing I noticed upon arriving in the Arboretum on Sunday was that it was a very, very busy place! Cars overflowed both halves of the parking lot and spilled out onto the edges of the roadway, extending for half a mile or more in each direction. Please, if you visit the Arboretum and all of the paved parking spaces are occupied, be very careful about where you choose to leave your vehicle. Safety for people and ecosystems is vitally important. When in doubt, please come into the Visitor Center and check with the receptionist or other staff person about where it is OK to park.

I counted 84 people starting out on the afternoon tour. Not an all-time record, but a very large number. This will happen on a beautiful sunny weekend when the magnolias are in bloom.

Normally a vague tour name like ‘The Awakening Land’ – chosen months in advance – would be a hedge against the variations in climate and blooming time that we can expect from one Wisconsin spring to another. But this year, with a mild winter and then ten or more days of outrageously warm weather, the land was wide awake and wearing her party clothes.

We have a map, compiled a few years ago, of the native wildflowers which grow in Gallistel Woods. It includes early, average, and latest blooming dates for selected species. 2012 is beating those dates – even the ‘earliest’ – by a matter of weeks. For instance, bloodroot, for which the previous earliest-ever bloom date was April 9th, began flowering this spring just past mid-March and is now, on March 26, almost finished.

We left the Visitor Center by the back door and proceeded around the paved path to the woodland garden area of the Native Plants Garden. This is a useful place for a wildflower ‘primer’, where it’s possible to point out and identify quite a few species in one small area before going to the woods to find them in more scattered locations.

Here under the sugar maples we found in bloom violets, rue anemone, bloodroot, Dutchman’s breeches, toothwort, and one tiny hepatica. Very visible and/or in bud were blue cohosh, Mayapples, Jacob’s ladder, troutlily, and wild ginger; shy and nearly escaping our notice, but possessed of tiny buds, was miterwort.

Rhododendrons have begun to bloom in the horticultural garden! There are several colorful ones near the outdoor restroom building. We admired them in passing even though our stated purpose was to find native flowers.

We also stopped to appreciate a couple of large patches of bloodroot under the black locust trees west of the old Civilian Conservation Corps building. I told an Anishinabe story about a beautiful young woman, Waubigoon (White Flower), who mysteriously departed from her people but left a ‘bleeding’ white flower behind so they would always remember her. Before we left that area, we had a great look at two wild turkeys running across the garden lawn. They are surprisingly swift.

Proceeding through the willow and birch sections of the garden on our way to Gallistel Woods, we couldn’t help but notice the gloriously yellow forsythias in full flower in the shrub trial area. Forsythia makes a lovely hedge at this time of year and is attractively green all summer.

Entering the woods, we found prairie (red) trillium in leaf and occasionally in bud. Small green leaves announced where the wild blue phlox will be blooming before long; a few tiny dicots hinted at the presence of jewelweed. The tall, slender stalks of bugbane can also be seen.

Tufted titmice sang to us as we wended our way along the woodland trails. These are tiny, crested gray-and-white birds related to chickadees. ‘Peter, Peter, Peter!’ they chant; we could hear several different individuals singing. Always strikes me as a big voice for a small bird.

At the ‘stone house’ intersection, wood poppy is in leaf and fuzzy bud, soon to show us yellow flowers. The umbrella-like leaves of Mayapple are present in large numbers; Virginia bluebells bear many pink buds, with a few of them having changed to sky-blue and opened already. I always think of Mertensia as ‘Mother Nature’s litmus paper’ for that reason – it is signaling a chemical change in the flower, as well as its readiness to be pollinated. Pink and red are almost invisible to bees, but blue is very attractive to them. How about that for timing?

We have been known to refer to the G2 trail crossing as ‘the dentists’ convention’—it is chockablock with teeth, I mean, toothworts. Clonal and spreading, this plant carpets large areas. But it is a spring ephemeral, and if you come back to the same area in two months you will not be able to find any trace of it, as flowers and leaves will have died back and disappeared. (All the more reason to appreciate it right now.) Truth be told, the toothworts do not look as densely green to me this year as they usually do.

On the way up the hill toward the effigy mound group, I spotted two small ostrich-fern fiddleheads. The brown, dead-looking stalks (actually the spore-bearing structures) can easily be seen; soon more ‘fiddles’ will appear and open into the huge feathery fronds typical of this species. Other ferns present in the wetter areas of Gallistel, but not yet up, include sensitive, Goldie’s, wood, and royal.

In the area around the mounds we discovered yellow forest violets, spring beauties, and hepatica. Usually there are some clumps of Dutchman’s breeches nearby as well. I didn’t see them on Sunday, but might have missed them as I was beginning to fear that the tour would seriously run over its allotted time.

Emerging from the woods and returning to the Longenecker Gardens, we angled toward the far corner to have a look at the magnolia collection – currently in bloom about a month earlier than usual. Shades of pink and white are well represented among these lovely trees; less common, and very striking, are a magenta cultivar by the name of ‘Susan’ and a lemon-yellow one called ‘Elizabeth’.

I’m a naturalist, not a horticulturist; my expertise, limited as it is, trends to native ecosystems and their various occupants. But I would be remiss as a representative of the Arboretum not to give a little information about the spectacular horticultural species currently in bloom in the garden beds.

The main flowering species this week, besides the magnolias, are serviceberry, wild plum, forsythia, early rhodendrons, and flowering quince (one of the latter is a gorgeous rosy apricot hue). Crabapples are in bud, with many showing color; one cultivar (Malus baccata ‘Jackii’) is in bloom. The lilacs are in bud, with the earliest ones showing color or even beginning to open. Spring witch hazel and Cornelian cherry dogwood are already finished for the season. Watch the Arboretum’s Web site and Facebook page for the very latest information. Spring is springing fast and hard – don’t miss your annual favorites!

Located between Lake Wingra and the West Beltline Highway at 1207 Seminole Highway, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum features the restored prairies, forests and wetlands of pre-settlement Wisconsin. This 1,260-acre arboretum also houses flowering trees, shrubs and a world-famous lilac collection. Educational tours for groups and the general public, science and nature-based classes for all ages and abilities, and a wide variety of volunteer opportunities for groups, families and individuals are available.