Tree buds burst open into tiny flowers and miniature, tender green leaves unfurl trembling, too frail yet to shade a forest floor.
A short, unsung “other foliage season” is here. Don’t blink – you’ll miss it.
For a few heartbreakingly-short days, hours it seems, the hills are veiled in gauzy, soft pastels: light yellow, lavender, pink and pale green. This lesser-known foliage season arrives annually right on the heels of mud season and just as female blackflies begin to bite. Perhaps spring foliage could become a New Hampshire tourism season? We might consider giving it a quaint name like “pollen days” or “neck welt time” to make the most of it. It’s traditionally a slow tourism season for turning green to gold… or vice-versa.
“The Ditches of Merrimack County”
Delicate wildflowers and fuzzy fern fiddleheads poke-up through dry mats of autumn leaves pressed paper thin by the weight of a vanished snow pack. Wildflowers bloom early and die-back quickly in full sun beneath leafless hardwoods. The "spring ephemeral" wildflowers are an elegant vernal nutrient dam, locking-up important soil nutrients otherwise washed-away by snowmelt and rain. As flowers die-back, they release nutrients back to trees that will shade the forest floor by next month.
The ditches of Merrimack County are a perfect place to stroll seeking emerging ephemeral wildflowers. I recommend early morning, before clouds of hungry blackflies descend as the day warms. Look along roadside stonewalls and in sandy wet culverts. Get really close to best admire the elegant tiny details of tender new flowers, fern fiddleheads and tender young leaves. The spring-green landscape swells like a symphony with each passing moment.
Common flower species include edible purple and white violets often found on lawns amid dandelions. Carpets of white and pink striped spring beauties are found on richer hardwood sites under white ash and sugar maple. By late May, Canada mayflower starflower, pink lady slippers and blue-bead lilies will bloom under the conifers, growing even in the shade and acidic soils beneath pine, spruce and fir. Stonewalls and field edges host Jack-in-the-pulpits and red trilliums also called “wake Robin.” Red trillium is also known as “stinking Benjamin”- its scent is designed to mimic rotting meat in order to attract specific carrion flies as pollinators. Another frail beauty is “bellwort” or “wild oats” which features hanging pale-yellow blossoms. Bright neon yellow “marsh marigolds” grow in full sun at the edges of wetlands. A rugged, muscular little ephemeral is “coltsfoot” which favors hot, sunny roadside ditches choked with silt and winter road sand. The leaves that emerge later give coltsfoot its common name.
Tightly coiled, fuzzy fiddleheads unfurl. Tender green beech, birch, sugar maple and ash leaves and magenta red oak and red maple leaves flutter above the remains of the waxy buds which encased the tender growth since late last summer. Miniature bud scales now litter the forest floor like the fallen leaves will next autumn.
Robert Frost described this season best in his poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay:”
"Nature's first green is gold, Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower; but only so an hour..."