Wednesday, February 22, 2012

spring done sprang...

fresh this morning...brand-new strawberry bush (Euonymus americanus) foliage

"Behold: all things are become new..."
                                                                                        -- 2 Corinthians 5:17


Spring came creeping in over the Mardi Gras weekend, meek, mild, and inspirational as ever. Living back in the Bayou Vermilion floodplain, I couldn't help but note the contrast between our garish celebration – round numbah 12,032 [or thereabouts] in our own perpetual search for self-validation – versus Spring's brand of celebration, which by its mere presence, becomes validation for all things, including us po' humans.

back porch view:  wild geranium, oxalis, rain lily, , spiderwort, bedstraw carpet
below; freshly-expanding leaves of deciduous holly, rough-leaf dogwood, and elderberry above.
you can't see the seed feeders very well (against the smaller of Lydia's old rehab pens), but an older male Chipping Sparrow stubbornly remained there -- refusing to abandon his breakfast buffet -- hotly "chipping" his protest as i approached to within 15' to take this picture.

Here in the low woodlands, the arrival of Spring 2012 has brought its usual sachel of pleasantly-lukewarm temperatures, days-in-a-row of rains or threats of rains, along with the resultant clouds of mosquitoes, the evil carpenter bee, the fantastically-fresh flowers of the early-spring bloomers, and today, the promising apprearance of the first new leaves of our deciduous plants. Soon, the hollow-echoing sound of winter will be replaced with the gently-muffled softness of spring. Heck, cardinals, chickadees, titmice, wrens, mockingbirds – even hawks – are hollering their lungs out for hours a day.

rain lily blooms sneak thru a chubby clump of spiderwort garlanded with bedstraw

the venerable old Cherrylaurel (almond-scented leaves!), fronted by
'Old Blush' the first antique rose variety brought in to the U.S. (ca. 1750)

The blooms of local early-spring plants, yes, we wait for those; but it is the unfurling of the first leaves of the year that really raise the hairs on the back of my neck, you know? The sudden near-wall-to-wall appearance of vibrant yet somehow soft hues of green, along with their accompanying textures, is almost startling. As of this morning, numerous local trees are now leafing out: pawpaw, red buckeye, sweetgum, black willow, deciduous holly, rough-leaf dogwood, and strawberry bush. 
The sounds of the birds and the long lost buzzing of flying insects echo through the warmish moisture-laden air. It's all almost too much to take in. Almost.
The pictured rain lily species is Zephranthes candida (aka "zephyrlily"), a South American native which has naturalized around Louisiana a good bit. Other natives currently in bloom include mayhaw (Crataegus opaca/aestivalis), blue phlox (Phlox divarcata), dewberry (Rubus trivialis), and little-leaf viburnum (V. obovatum).
little-leaf viburnum is a wetland species; this one is some sort of
dwarf cultivar (can't remember its name)
Spring down here along the Gulf Rim is hard to beat. Within a couple of weeks, you'll have to almost get out of the way as the bird, bug, and bloom/foliage parade picks up steam. As we say here in Cajunland, "Get out and get you some!"

Monday, February 6, 2012

mardi gras maple

Samaras of Acer rubrum var. drummondii

Genetic variation...some plants got it, some don't. Here in the southeastern U.S. for example, white oaks look pretty much the same wherever they are found. Ditto for southern red oaks. On the other hand, water oaks show lots of genetic variation in leaf margin/shape. Ditto for delta post oak (Quercus similis).

American Robins feasting on "standard" Yaupon Holly fruits
(photo by Stephen Pagans)

And then there are species such as yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria), which exhibits big-time differences in leaf size, branching patterns, growth habit, fruit color, etc., often within single locales!

By the way, the UL-Lafayette campus and nearby Ira Nelson Horticulture Center on Johnston Street in Lafayette, may still host a substantial number of holly variants; for back in the golden age of horticultural research (1950-80) there, a number of UL horticulture professors were collecting, hybridizing, and test-planting all sorts of hollies, native and exotic. Dr. James Foret, for example, found a female yaupon out in the wild with pendulant branch growth which he named 'Folsom's Weeping' Yaupon, a plant which is still in the nursery trade today.

"Swamp Red Maple" (Acer rubrum var. drummondii)

Red maple (Acer rubrum ssp.) is another native species exhibiting tons of variation, mainly in leaf shape and pubescence, fruit size and color, and winter foliage color as well – so much so that it has been subdivided into three distinct botanical varieties: red maple (A. rubrum var. rubrum ), Drummond's red maple (A. rubrum var. drummondii), and (no common name) A. rubrum var. trilobum; each of these varieties occurring in discreet populations throughout the species' eastern U.S. range. Moreover, even within each varietal population, substantial variation is regularly observed in the wild.

Drummond's red maple (Acer rubrum var. drummondii), locally known as “swamp red maple,”  is heavily distributed throughout Louisiana's “brown water” swamps and bottomland hardwood habitats. Able to thrive alongside bald cypress and tupelo gum in even permanently-inundated swamps, swamp red maple is one of the most common trees within south-central Louisiana's Atchafalaya Basin – said to be the largest remaining river swamp in North America. Compared to the leaves of the “standard” red maple (Acer rubrum var. rubrum), swamp red maple leaves feature densely pubescent undersurfaces – so much so that the undersurfaces appear silvery-white – whereas the undersurfaces of the former almost completely lack pubescence and appear nearly the same hue of green as the upper surfaces. Too, swamp red maple leaves are mostly three-lobed (as opposed to mostly five-lobed in red maple), with lobes featuring very shallow “toothing”(as opposed to deep/irregular toothing in red maple).

Acer rubrum var. drummondii
loaded with samaras

Coming into bloom each January, swamp red maples are soon adorned with clusters of large, long-stemmed, two-winged fruit capsules known as samaras. By February samara production reaches its peak, resulting in tree branches heavily-hung with samara clusters in colors ranging from paper-bag-brown to flesh pink to pink-mauve to ruby-red to ox-blood-red.

Note Samara Color Variations Among These Four
Randomly Selected/Randomly Planted Specimens

Many years ago, it was none other than Dr. James Foret who suggested that we capitalize on this local February spectacle, and advertise a “Mardi Gras Maple Tour” across the Atchafalaya Basin during the Mardi Gras season, when so many tourists are hanging around in south Louisiana. Dr. Foret reasoned that since we do not have the annual “in-your-face” fall foliage color show celebrated in northern states, why not focus on the nearly-as-spectacular “sort-of-in-your-face” early-spring samara color show – focused particularly in the Atchafalaya Basin where 1) swamp red maples are abundant, and 2) many tourists are traveling between New Orleans and Lafayette in order to catch both “city” and “country” cultural flavors of our Fat Tuesday celebrations.

In essence, Dr. James Foret was suggesting one of Louisiana's first eco-tourism events.

Alas, the idea never did gain traction in any official capacity. But then again, hooray(!); as swamp red maples care not whether their fruiting season is celebrated by humans or not . . . they just go on fruiting February after February.

Suggestion: Take a drive on I-10 across the basin this month. Stop off at the fine tourist center at Butte LaRose. Celebrate our Mardi Gras Maple season for yourselves.

And hey, never underestimate the visual power of our swamp red maple winter foliage color season. It comes late – usually not beginning in earnest until mid-December, and peaking somewhere around Christmas give-or-take a week. Regarding winter foliage color, we have a patch of swamp red maple living in the understory of a smallish grove of green ash trees directly across from our house. Over the years I've noticed that winter foliage color varies not only from tree to tree, but also from winter to winter within individual trees! Below are winter foliage pictures that I've accumulated from this small colony over a period of several winters. 

19 December 2005

05 December 2011

05 December 2011

10 December 2009