ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Aspen and willow buds opening

The days of late February can still be quite chilly. And though this dry month normally provides only light snow, the white stuff can happen at any time. But this month of winter also gives news of the coming spring. Each day we have an earlier s...

Quaking aspen
The furry buds of a quaking aspen. Note the branching stem.

The days of late February can still be quite chilly. And though this dry month normally provides only light snow, the white stuff can happen at any time. But this month of winter also gives news of the coming spring. Each day we have an earlier sunrise and a later sunset. I've observed that birds that arrived at the bird feeders about 8 a.m. a month ago are coming by at 7 a.m. now. Commuters on these February days have noticed this extra light. We are rapidly advancing towards the vernal equinox of March, a month away.

We are not the only ones to notice the longer days. Of the others responding to this extra light, probably the most obvious to us are the birds. Virtually every day, chickadees sing their "feebee" song while woodpeckers drum on nearby trees; both tell of plans for the coming spring. Not as clearly noticeable, but also showing a reaction to the lengthening times, are the trees. As we move through this month and the days of late winter, I notice many trees starting to show a different color in their outer branches. Birch twigs take on a burgundy hue, while various willows hold their outer twigs of yellows and reds. But the most obvious are those of the diminutive red-osier dogwoods. At this time, they live up to their colorful name and the small trees become bright red. And while other trees have only peripheral twigs of red, this dogwood paints its colors on all the branches and stems. Indeed, it is hard for the passerby to not notice a patch of roadside red-osier dogwoods in the sunlight.

However, trees also respond in other ways, and in these last couple of weeks I have been looking at some buds. Many trees have their buds enlarging or further developing at this time, but only a couple have them opening. Best known to most of us is a small willow of the roadside swamps. Most of the year we hardly notice it, but as we begin to exit February, the bud scales open and drop off to reveal a furry-looking growth, causing us to call it the pussy willow. Catching the eye of many winter-weary Northlanders, a bouquet of these thin twigs with their furry buds serves as a fine treatment for cabin or spring fever. But this small willow is not the only one with such buds.

Much more abundant and much taller than the willows are the quaking aspens. Scattered throughout the Northland, they are one of the most common trees. All winter the aspens stood in the cold and now in February, in response to the longer days (and I suspect also the mild temperatures), the quaking aspens are opening their buds. Like the pussy willow's, the aspen's buds are furry-looking; but unlike the willows, most aspens hold their buds high up off the ground. With a little practice, I have learned where to find them while going by these trees at this time. Looking among the top branches, we can see these furry buds, but not on every tree. Such buds are only on male trees. The buds which look like furry growths are the beginning of longer pollen-forming structures called catkins. (A similar situation exists with the willow.) This fur-like growth seems to be an adaptation to opening in the cool days of late winter. During March, the catkins may remain small, but with the warming trend in spring, they elongate and produce pollen that drifts in the breeze to pollinate the female trees. We don't see their full function when we see the buds now, but viewing the open buds of willows and aspens is a delight of late February, and they tell us of the longer days and the warming times to come.

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including "Butterflies of the North Woods," "Spiders of the North Woods" and "Webwood." Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com .

ADVERTISEMENT

Pussy willow
The furry buds of a pussy willow. Note the unbranched stem.

What To Read Next