End of Winter – no doubt!

SUNDAY, MARCH 25, 2012

Well, what a surprise this late winter weather has been! We have had a week of upper 70 s and lower 80 degree weather and these temperatures are about 40 degrees above normal! As you can imagine, it was hard to stick to our “End of Winter” theme this past Sunday. Normally we look for the rare early signs of spring at this time of the year but this Sunday we were able to see obvious signs of early and mid-spring.

We began our search for spring in the Native Plant Gardens located behind the McKay Center. In the small maple basswood forest we observed our first flowers. Two hepatica plants were in full bloom showing off their pinkish white petal-like sepals. Just beyond the hepatica we noticed the white “puffy pant “flowers of the Dutchman’s breeches. Siberian squill was also blooming in this area and we discussed that it is not a native plant and several visitors mentioned that they have it in their lawns. Just a few steps down the trail we found several toothwort plant flowers looking as if they were going to open at any moment. Next to these plants a bloodroot was blooming. These white petaled flowers are very short lived. In fact, they normally only last 24-48 hours so we were very excited to be able to see one. Near the bloodroots, we stopped to look at the tiny stalks of the mayapple plants sticking up about an inch out of the ground.

After the maple basswood forest, we moved into the Longenecker gardens to observe several shrubs and trees in flower. The Cornelian cherry dogwood shrubs were covered with small yellow flowers. Upon close observation, we noticed that several honey bees were visiting the early flowers and filling their pollen baskets with their bright yellow pollen. Just a few steps away we looked at and smelled the flowers of several vernal witch hazel shrubs.

Our next stop was at the willow shrubs to look at the “pussy willows”. These traditional signs of spring are actually the flowering structures of the plants. These structures are covered by fuzzy scales before the flowers emerge. Willows have male and female flowers located on separate plants. The plants that we observed on Sunday were all male plants so the flowers were bright yellow and covered in pollen. Behind the willows, we observed the flowers of the European Hazelnut tree. The male flowers were easy to spot because they are located on “worm like” dangling structures called catkins. The female flowers were much harder to locate. They are small and located near the branches. Their hot pink stigmas sticking out of the top did help us locate the small flowers.

After exiting the Longenecker gardens, we entered Gallistel Woods. This example of a southern mesic forest is a great place to find wildflowers in the spring. The plants in this area were not as far along as the plants in the Native Plant Gardens so we did not find any bloodroot or Dutchman’s britches in bloom but we did notice that the Virginia bluebells foliage was starting to appear. The false rue anemone plants were also up but not flowering and several of the toothwort flower appeared as if they were about to open.

One of the highlights of the tour was listening to the chorus frogs at the Icke Boardwalk. These tiny frogs have such a loud voice! Their sound has been compared to the cr…eeek sound you get when you rub your fingernail along the edge of a fine toothed comb. At the boardwalk, we also observed the flowers of the alders. These trees have their male flowers found on dangling catkins but their female flowers are located on small cone-like catkins

We then made our way over to the wildflower trail and along the way we found several open toothwort flowers! We also found a few small wild geranium leaves popping up out of the ground. Along the trail, we found more toothwort in bloom but unfortunately didn’t find any of the hepatica plants. At the top of the hill, the spring beauty leaves were up out of the ground and we saw a mourning cloak butterfly flying amongst the trees.

We finished our hike with a stroll through Longenecker gardens. We noticed a few magnolias in bloom and we stopped to observe the delicate new needles emerging on the tamarack trees.

It seems like spring has come about a month early this year. I don’t know if we have ever had such an early spring. It definitely is something to think about. Why has it come so early? What will happen in the future? What will summer be like? These are questions with complicated answers. I think we will have to just wait and see. In the meantime, we should enjoy the sights and smells of our early spring and get outside and have some fun!

Kristin Lamers

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.