Spring Unfolding

For many people, spring is their favorite time of year—the long, cold winter having given way to warmth, sunshine, and flowers. I love spring as well but find myself frustrated sometimes by its Jekyll and Hyde nature. This spring was particularly frustrating—the cold and rain seemed at times interminable, delaying the onset of the spring flora several weeks past normal. Once the sun finally did appear, the entire forest exploded in a cacophony of simultaneous leaf and bloom. Plant phenologies were so compressed that there was almost no time to appreciate the season before it was over. Nevertheless, as I waited patiently for those warmer days, I was still able to find beauty in the pre-bloom forest among its nascent leaves—their development put on hold for the time being but taking on an almost floral quality in the absence of the true flowers that they preceded. As a student of wood-boring beetles, I’ve had to become also a capable botanist, at least with regards to the woody flora, and pride myself on being able to identify trees not just by their mature leaves, but also their wood, bark, growth habit, and natural community—characters that are always available when leaves may not be (as is often the case with dead trees). Nascent leaves, on the other hand, are like flowers—ephemeral and often colorful. One must make an effort to see them, but it is effort well spent.

The photos below were taken on a cold, overcast day in late April at Holly Ridge Conservation Area in extreme southeastern Missouri. How many of them can you identify to species? This is an open challenge (i.e., no moderation of comments), and the first person to correctly identify all six will be declared the winner (remember, spelling counts!).


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#2

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#3

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#6

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Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

These are a few of my favorite trees

Adrian Thysse recently posted a video of a talk by Wayne Maddison titled “Jumping Spider Melodies,” given November 2012 at the Joint Annual Meeting of the Entomological Society of Canada and the Entomological Society of Alberta. It was a fascinating talk that revealed some interesting correlations between the phylogeny and geographical patterns of distribution of jumping spiders—those bright-eyed, bouncy, almost kitten-like darlings of the spider world. One quote from the talk, however, that stood out for me above all others went something like “Scientists have a rational motivation to seek truth and an emotional motivation to seek beauty.” I think this is true especially for biologists and natural historians—who among us that studies that natural world in adulthood didn’t start out with a love of the outdoors as a child? For me it was the woods that ignited my passion, and still today nothing rejuvenates my spirit like the overwhelming beauty and solitude of the forest.

Shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata) | Wayne Co., Missouri

Shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata) | Wayne Co., Missouri

Wintertime especially is when I enjoy my visits to the forest. Far from the cacophony of summer, my mind is free to explore the open canopy, to examine the fabric of the landscape and ponder its history—unhurried, without objective. During the summer, trees are host plants—I see them not for what they are, but for the beetles that might be on them. I identify them, sample them, assess them for where their guests might be. In winter though, without beating sheet in hand, without collecting vials in the pocket, I see trees as works of art—freed from their summer cloaks, living skeletons on a living landscape.

Honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) | Wayne Co., Missouri

Honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos)

Different trees are my favorite at different times for different reasons. Blazing hot orange sugar maples (Acer saccharum) at peak fall color, stately white oaks (Quercus alba) with their ash-gray branches, broad-crowned post oaks (Quercus stellata) dotting a remnant savanna, or even gnarled, ancient red-cedars (Juniperus virginiana) clinging tenuously to life on the edge of a dolomite bluff. Most often for me, however, the beauty is in the bark. The deeply fissured, reddish plates of shortleaf pine (Pinus echninata), the terrifyingly thorned trunks of honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos), the shaggy, peeling strips of shagbark hickory (Carya ovata). Even in their winter nakedness, the bark of these trees gives them year-round personality that is lacking in lesser-barked trees.

Shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) | Wayne Co., Missouri

Shagbark hickory (Carya ovata)

Honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) - thornless individual | Wayne Co., Missouri

Honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) – thornless individual

The tree in this post were photographed during November 2012 while hiking the Wappapello Section of the Ozark Trail in the Ozark Highlands of southeastern Missouri (Wayne Co.). 

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013