If Spring came but once in a century, instead of once a year, or burst forth with the sound of an earthquake, and not in silence, what wonder and expectation there would be in all hearts to behold the miraculous change!
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
This past weekend, a few of us took a stroll on the property to see what might be stirring in these first few warm days of March. The tree canopy is still absent but things are stirring in the understory, or what is left of it here in this heavily deer-browsed habitat.
The exotic invasive shrub, Eleagnus umbellata, dominates several slopes on this property, creating thickets that are difficult, if not downright painful, to navigate.
It is starting to leaf out, giving the slopes a light green tint from 3 to 7 feet off the ground. Unfortunately, deer do not seem to browse on this plant except in times of severe food shortages, so it has become well-established in much of the Piedmont since its introduction to this country in the 1830’s. Eleagnus crowds and shades out many of our native plants, causing a reduction in the diversity of our woods.
But if you look closely, especially in the habitats approaching the creek bottoms or drainage areas, you will find one of the earliest native species to leaf out. Painted Buckeye, Aesculus sylvatica, is one of the dominant shrubs (or small trees depending on your viewpoint) in this part of the Piedmont. It begins to leaf out most years by mid-March, and last weekend it seemed to be right on schedule. The large terminal buds begin to swell noticeably in early March.
I love to observe and photograph the patterns of these beautiful buds and emerging leaves.
The textures and details of buds as they swell and open are incredible and contain so many facets, if you give them a closer look.
Then the leaves begin to emerge, looking like a cross between ancient carvings and elegant architecture.
On Sunday, only a few plants had the first hint of their yellow to cream-colored flower cluster peeking out from the umbrella of emerging leaves.
I went back out yesterday, after two warm sunny days, and the buckeye landscape had changed dramatically. On my short walk I saw only one unopened bud. Now there are flower buds on many of the stout twigs.
And the distinctive palmately divided leaves have unfurled on the majority of plants. Since most of the parts of a Painted Buckeye have toxic properties, it is resistant to browsing by deer and most other mammals. The flowers do provide a valuable early nectar source for bumblebees, butterflies, and the first hummingbirds arriving back in our area. Look for these unusual flower clusters the next couple of weeks throughout our region, and be sure to stop and admire this hardy native plant on your next woodland walk.