As we begin this spring month of April, we look forward to a period of 30 days that can, and often does, give us a huge variety of happenings. Before we exit this month, we may experience temperatures as high as the 70s or more. In the other direction, the mercury could be less than 10 degrees. (Though subzero has occurred in the Northland in April, it is quite unusual.)
Snowfall is a regular part of this spring month and though we average about 7 inches, this varies greatly. Most of us remember April of 2013 when we were buried under about 51 inches of snow during these 30 days. But going back a little further to April of 2010, we received none. Precipitation has averaged about 2 1/2 inches at this time. A dry April has the addition of being in the fire season. Dried dead grasses exposed by the melting snow can become quite a fire hazard. And normally April is the time of ice-out on many of our lakes. Definitely, April is a month where we’ll take note of many changes.
Among all the variations, there is a consistency of the longer days. Though normally not hot, these days of more sunlight are warmer than the previous months and migrants do arrive. The very early migrants of robins, blackbirds, juncos and sparrows in our yards now become more numerous. Varied as sapsuckers, thrushes, phoebes and the first warblers also return. Open waters invite passing water birds for a stop and each day, new species can be seen. I expect to hear the drumming of ruffed grouse regularly, too.
The new grass shoots add more green to the scene. In some sunny hot spots, crocuses and dandelions are in bloom. Out in the woods, the spring flora will begin flowering during this month as well, but most open in the second half. Those of us who enjoy an early spring walk in the woods, however, can find flowers in bloom on the trees.
Instead of looking down among the brown leaves on the forest floor, we are likely to locate flowers on the branches of trees nearby, either low or higher up. We tend to think of flowers as being showy and colorful with petals, often also quite fragrant. Such flowers do exist on trees, what we call blossoms, and we will find these on trees later in spring, mostly May. The arboreal flowers tend to be less showy or colorful and often completely lack petals.
Buds of willows and aspens opened in March and now mature to form long drooping flowers that we call catkins. Hot-dog shaped, they are often separate male and female. Male catkins of alders and hazels are developing maturity now in early April. And a close look at the hazel branches reveals tiny purple female flowers as well. But these small trees are not alone. Among the larger trees it is the silver maple that sets the pace, the first big tree to bloom.
During the waning days of March, I often stop to examine the swelling buds on these trees. With enough warmth, they open to show the flowers within. Male flowers (called staminate) stick out on small filamentous stems with a capsule, the anther, on the tip, where the pollen develops. Female flowers (called pistillate) are reddish in color and open to accept this pollen that drifts in the wind. Being wind pollinated, these tree flowers do not need to have attractive petals or odors to bring in insects. They rely on the spring breezes.
Silver maples are large trees and though quite common in the region, they are not as well known as a couple of relatives. Sugar maples and red maples are better known and in spring often the sources of great-tasting sap. Imported Norway maples line our streets as well. Two lesser known and smaller local maples are the mountain maple (moosewood) and the box elder, more common to the west of here. Not only is there a variety in the maple’s appearances, they also vary in their floral arrangement. Only the red maples have flowers, both male and female, that look like those of the silver maples.
Winds are a constant in spring, often east winds, that may be chilly, and the flowers do get pollinated. The result is the formation of the winged seeds, the samaras, that we see scattered and blowing around in late spring or early summer. These “helicopter things” that we see at that time get their start now as the large buds of the silver maples open in early April. They tell us that much more will be coming from trees in the coming weeks of spring.