Author – George & Elizabeth Churcher
Every day right now is filled with little surprises. As we move gingerly towards the end of March, warm Spring sunshine reaches out to anoint us with newness: hints of green begin to appear among the thatched grass and our earliest perennials are showing signs of promise. The great expanse of snow has disappeared from our fields and lawn, and only remnant patches remind us that winter has left us for another year. — And yet, the snow flurries filling the air last evening and this morning’s sharp, icy gusts are reminders that we are still in transition.
Despite the inevitable fluctuations in temperature, the force of life is inexorable. While we search for those tiny indications that Spring has truly arrived, we have to admit that the landscape around our home still has a very drab cloak. Without their pristine white blanket, our surroundings are dominated by various tones of brown, of fading darkness. We continue to dream of fields and woods clothed in gentle soft greens, in shimmering lime shades and in deep forest tones. Yes, our whole world will soon awaken.
— But if we look deeper, indications of life are present. The deciduous shrubs and trees in the fencerows and up into the woods are still bare of leaves. It’s early yet to witness those outer garment changes but deep inside living forces are at work. Just look at the clear, sweet sap dripping into the buckets that many in our area have hung on their Maple trees in recent weeks. These trees are mustering their life force, beginning to send the sugar sucrose upwards throughout the tree: they are mobilizing that starch that was stored lower down throughout the winter, directing it towards the living, growing cells of the trees and transforming it into sucrose which supplies energy for all of the cell processes. Stop for a moment to scan all of the trees and shrubs around you. Beneath their bark, the life-blood of all is beginning to flow, each on its own timetable.
The master plan for survival and growth is spread across the entire year. Long before their winter rest, during last year’s early summer growing season, the trees and shrubs formed buds. Nestled in those buds are the embryonic cells that will produce this year’s leaves and flowers and the embryonic cells of the growing points that will increase the length of the main twig and its side branches. The leaves, flowers and growing points are all pre-formed in the bud. As Spring moves forward, food energy from sucrose sugar, minerals and water from the roots and warmth from the increasing air temperature will cause the leaves to expand, all the while shedding their bud scales. The little, delicate new leaves gradually grow larger by cell growth and division.
On the outside of the leaves, we see beauty but inside we must imagine an industrious flurry of activity. Their food producing cells manufacture complex molecules of chlorophyll. Each of the chlorophyll molecules has an atom of magnesium at its centre, just as each of the hemoglobin molecules in our red blood cells contain an atom of iron at their core. The magnesium atom comes from the soil: the iron atom is from our food and also originally from the soil.
Throughout the winter, the stark trunks and branches of our trees and shrubs are a constant reminder that it is a season of rest but for our herbaceous plants, only a shrivelled, grayish brown stalk remains. Life has left their stems and their true value is now in the nutrients that they can contribute to our compost piles or to the enriching of the soil where they fall. — But life will awaken! These plants can be categorized into three groups based on the length of their lives and their patterns of reproduction. Annual green plants produce all of their new growth from the seed. Biennials, such as Blueweed or Evening Primrose, send up new stems from a growing point at the centre of the rosette of leaves which formed the previous year and overwintered under the snow. Finally, perennial herbaceous plants, like Goldenrod and Asters, produce new stems from growing points in underground structures such as roots or underground stems called rhizomes. This group can also increase in number by sending out above ground running stems called stolons with which we are very familiar in our Strawberry patch.
As we wait patiently for the unfurling of buds and for the bouquet of colour to light up our gardens, let’s be vigilant and capture each new awakening. It’s time to start looking for the Skunk Cabbage that leads the way among our herbaceous plants, flowering in wetland areas in March. Not too long after we celebrate this unique plant’s re-entry, we will be treated, in early April, to a flourish of gold along some of our roadsides. The yellow flower heads of Colt’s Foot always give us such a warm welcome to Spring.
— And the march continues! Later in April, our woodland wildflowers will appear in perfect timing to make food and be pollinated before being shaded by the forest canopy. Then in early May, the first flush of green, in beautiful delicate shades, will cloth our woodland scene, as tree buds open and their leaves expand. Trembling Aspens will leaf out first at the edge of our woods, an event in Nature’s calendar that we fondly anticipate each Spring. The breath-taking richness of the hues of colour on display is a wonderful signal of ‘Green Awakenings’ that will continue to enliven our natural world. Let us open our eyes to each new awakening and appreciate more deeply all that Spring has to offer.