For Love of Earth

Katsura female flower

Katsura female flower

It’s not often 80+ degrees in April in Wisconsin … at least it USED to be rare. Alas, as we reap the effects of global climate change, it’s likely to be a more frequent occurrence.

Not to preach, but global warming IS real and IS human-activity-caused, and we have known about it for a long time. Recently I happened to pick up an old book off my shelf—The Environmental Handbook, compiled in 1970 for what was being called “the first National Environmental Teach-In.” The “Earth Day” name hadn’t yet been applied.

Anyway, my eye fell on this passage from Garrett DeBell’s essay on energy: “Scientists are becoming worried about increasing CO2 levels because of the greenhouse effect, with its possible repercussions on the world climate . . . some [scientists] believe that the earth’s average temperature will increase, resulting in the melting of polar ice caps with an accompanying increase of sea levels and inundation of coastal cities.”

Pretty prescient stuff. Worth thinking about and acting on, as we approach Earth Day’s 46th anniversary.

In fact, several important environmental milestones fall between April 14 and 22. Rachel Carson, author of the beyond-classic Silent Spring, died on April 14, 1964. April 21 claims two anniversaries: John Muir’s birth in 1838, and Aldo Leopold’s death in 1948. And then of course, the first Earth Day, held on April 22, 1970, and largely credited to Wisconsin’s own governor and US Senator Gaylord Nelson. And as if all that weren’t enough, 2016 marks the centenary of Nelson’s birth.

Good reasons, all of them, to honor springtime on this beautiful, fragile planet, and hope for better human behavior in the future. “For Love of Earth,” as the tour name says.

We began our hike by appreciating the magnolia trees coming into bloom in the Longenecker Horticultural Garden. These had changed appreciably in the 24 hours that had passed since I had done my scouting. The ones currently blossoming are pink or white; we have a few pale-yellow-flowered magnolias, but they tend to open just a bit later.

We moved on to the Katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum), or I should say to the Arboretum’s largest specimen of same. I had noticed from a distance that it seemed to have a pinkish tinge. Up close, we could see fine, spiky, magenta-colored growths in clusters of four on the otherwise-barren twigs. I was not sure if these were leaves, or flowers, budding.

It turns out they are flowers—female flowers, to be specific. The Katsura is dioecious, meaning it has separate male and female trees. These non-showy structures are the stigmas. If the wind brings them pollen from a male Katsura tree (whose flowers feature stamens and anthers), fertilization can occur and a fruit will form.

Longenecker’s male Katsuras are some distance away, and much smaller and more recently-planted, than the majestic female tree near the magnolia section. I confess I don’t know how likely it is that a hook-up will happen.

One of the visitors asked what family C. japonicum is in. I did not have that information at the time, but I do now, so I hope he reads these notes. It’s in a family unto itself: Cercidiphyllaceae (order Saxifragales). This is apparently a fairly recent re-classification, based on DNA studies.

The next noticeable thing in the garden was the Cornelian cherry dogwood, Cornus mas. This is a large shrub with yellowish flowers, in the same shrub bed as the witch hazel, which has just finished blooming. Cornelian cherry dogwood, as you might guess, will eventually have red fruits which somewhat resemble cherries, only smaller and more oval in shape. It’s native to central and southern Europe into western Asia; the fruit is edible, and is said to make good jam and sauces.

Unfortunately for us, it seems that the red-tailed hawks which have raised a brood in one of our tall white pine trees for several years running have chosen to nest elsewhere this spring. They may have been hazed off the site by a bald eagle which was seen around the Arboretum several times about a month ago. We saw no apparent activity around the old nest on Sunday.

We made two more stops before leaving the garden area: one to appreciate the brand new fresh green needles growing in clusters on the formerly bare larches and tamaracks, and one to admire the flowering cherry trees (Prunus spp). Located on the eastern edge of the garden and upslope from the Visitor Center, these are true cherries, and boy, are they pretty right now. Underneath them, ground-nesting bees are emerging to forage for nectar and pollen.  If you see something that looks like an anthill, watch it for a little while—you may be surprised to see a small bee come up out of it, not an ant at all.

Bloodroot
Bloodroot

Finally and with a combination of reluctance and anticipation, we entered the Gallistel woodland trail. We were richly rewarded with blooming wildflowers: bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), toothworts (Cardamine concatenata), Dutchman’s-breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), spring beauties (Claytonia virginica), and hepatica (Anemone americana/acutiloba). In fact the hepatica display is spectacular this year. We saw the leaves of prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum, which grows in the woods—don’t ask ME to explain the common name!), and twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla) just budding. A few bright-green ramps, or wild leeks (Allium tricoccum), are evident near the G-1 trail intersection. Troutlily (Erythronium spp.) leaves are everywhere, and a few flowers have opened as well. From time to time as we hiked we could hear wild turkeys gobbling.

Our hour and a half was almost up, so we headed over Juniper Knoll—finally getting a look at a couple of turkeys—and back to the Visitor Center. A small garter snake was in no great hurry to move off our path. As we approached the building, a red-tailed hawk took off from the roof, joining a companion to circle in the sky. A most satisfying finish to a pleasant walk.

Addendum: not to tantalize, but in scouting on Saturday on the Icke Boardwalk—which we did not have time to traverse on Sunday—I had seen nesting sandhill cranes; heard a few chorus frogs calling; observed a water strider atop the water and a caddisfly larva (in its casing) beneath the surface; and watched dueling green darner dragonflies. Not only that, but when I peered at some dark bits in the water they turned out to be snow fleas (order Collembola), free now of ice and snow. And the marsh marigolds are beginning to open, at Icke and elsewhere. Beauty abounds—go out and see it!

 —Kathy Miner

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