At the time this is written (March 2d) there is still five feet of snow lying upon the ground at Longmire. And yet, in spite of the wintry landscape beyond the windows of the Museum office, we do not have to look far for signs of spring.
Should one leave Puget Sound, where spring has now thoroughly entrenched herself, and travel north toward Alaska he would naturally find that winter seemed to have a firmer grip upon the countryside with the passage of each section of this journey. This is also true in traveling into the higher altitudes of our mountains. One finds the same gradation as to climatic and biological changes. In general, a climb of 1000 feet in altitude brings to our attention approximately the same changes in conditions that a 300 mile journey northward would expose.
One of the first signs of spring, botanically speaking at least, is contained in the willows. Widely scattered throughout the world, particularly in the northern hemisphere, they are known by people of many nations and doubtless serve as harbingers of spring in numerous lands. Who is not acquainted with "pussy" willows? Watch these furry catkins and you will see them gradually develop until they are covered with numerous yellow globules of pollen--for the "pussy" willow is the staminate flower. The pistillate flowers are quite different in appearance and not nearly as attractive. But both staminate and pistillate flowers are possessed of a small disk at the base which secretes nectar--thus the willows are favorites of the bees in the early spring before the other plants come on. In the willows the flowers of opposite sex are borne upon different plants. Look and see. "Pussy" willows will be found on one tree or bush and nearby you will no doubt find another which possesses catkins of a different character, designed by nature for a different purpose--seed production.
The Alder, local member of the Birch family, is another harbinger of spring. Unlike the willows both staminate and pistillate flowers are found on the same tree but the flowers that we will see at this time were partially developed before the end of the past summer and, as small rudimentary bodies, lay dormant through the long winter. The staminate develop into long, loose catkins that are quite conspicuous at this season. The pistillate flowers are the characteristic cone-like structures which you will note and they are pollenized by atmospheric currents which serve as the medium of transportation for the pollen from the flower of the opposite sex. Look for the Alder. Note how, with each gust of wind or with each disturbance of the branch that shakes the staminate catkin, a small puff of pollen dust is the result.
Everyone knows the Maples for this group of trees ranks high in the esteem of the American people. Maples are not, however, confined to our country alone for they are found throughout the northern hemisphere and as far south as Java. Here in the park the most conspicuous representative of this group is the Broad-leaved Maple. In the spring, before the big leaves have completely unfolded, the long loose clusters of racems of the yellow green flowers have the appearance of, as someone has said, the bells on a jester's cap. There is also the Vine Maple whose flowers are of a reddish hue. This species is not a tree, but a tall shrub, and makes its bid for public interest in the fall when its foliage turns to a flaming crimson in contrast to the sombre shades of its evergreen background.
The familiar willow has a relative--the Cottonwood-which is also interesting at this season. The two sexes of its flowers are like the willow, borne on different trees and the "cotton" that fills the air near some of these trees in the spring is in reality the seeds of the tree, each seed being attached to numerous fine silky hairs by which they are buoyed up and carried about by the winds. Both staminate and pistillate flowers are borne in long pendant clusters--the units of the staminate having a flat, disk-like appearance; those of the pistillate appearing globular like small peas. Often after a storm in the early spring one will find clusters of both staminate and pistillate flowers of the Cottonwood upon the ground.
There is, of course, the Dogwood whose showy white bracts surround the compact head of small green flowers, this is a common tree in the northwest but is rather rare in the park. The Hazel, while not a tree, is also worth mentioning. To the amateur its staminate catkins might be mistaken for the Alder--so examine them closely. And in the case of our evergreens we will soon be able to find numerous yellow or orange bodies near the ends of the branches. These are the staminate flowers while the pistillate flowers will be found to resemble miniature cone-like bodies awaiting development, fertilization and the production of seed.
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