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The Pioneer of Spring (Symplocarpus fætidus)


THE borders of the road are like the embroidered margin of a fine garment, full of beautiful and elaborate detail. If I wished within a limited space of time to gather a variety of wild flowers, I should follow the highway and leave rolling meadows and rocky slopes to themselves; for, sooner or later, each condition peculiar to the flower of the hillside, forest, field, and swamp I should be sure to encounter in an extended tour along the public road.

Unfortunately, we quite often pass on our way with unobservant eyes. The dandelion spreads its wealth of gold at our feet, and we do not stoop to notice it; probably if this wealthiest of all the golden wild flowers was endowed with a voice, it would reproach us in the words of the prophet, “Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by?” And we might have to reply with perfect candor, “Nothing; our world is not a world of dandelions.” But if we should pause to examine the wonderful golden flower under a powerful magnifying glass, we might discover a new world of absorbing interest, a very familiar one to our fellow-traveler on . the highway, the burly bumblebee; for her,1 at least, the dandelion is a mine of wealth, a golden storehouse filled with riches of pollen and nectar!

The dandelion is the richest but not the earliest flower of spring; there are many others which appear on the roadside much earlier. In the cold, wet hollow the ill-scented skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) is a pioneer, and long before April it has passed its prime and become unsightly in its miry retreat; in its place the marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) appears, a flower with scarcely less gold in its cup than the dandelion possesses. But the earliest wild flower of spring is undoubtedly the hepatica or liverwort (Hepatica triloba); this dainty, purplish white flower appears before its new leaves (the large purple-blotched ones are last year’s; the new ones are tiny and fuzzy) sometime in early April, next to a lingering bit of snow, and among the withered leaves beneath the trees at the woodland border of the road. I have found the hepatica in some seasons earlier than the trailing arbutus (Epigæa repens), but this is a matter of personal experience. William Hamilton Gibson asserts positively that the flower is really the first to appear, and I believe he is quite right. It is the easiest thing in the world to pass the hepatica without noticing it, so closely does it snuggle among the withered leaves; on this account I am inclined to believe it comes and goes quite undiscovered, while the conspicuous arbutus never fails to attract attention.


The bloodroot (Sanguinaria Canadensis) is another early April flower, whose white blossom of poppylike delicacy expands before the leaves; then there is the rue anemone (Anemonella thalictroides),whose flowers grow in clusters, and the windflower or wood anemone (Anemone quinquefolia),2 whose flowers grow singly; both of these appear side by side while the bloodroot is still in blossom. If there is a rocky bank near, here we may also look for the rock flower (Saxifraga Virginiensis) with its spikes of small white blossoms. Farther along we will be sure to find the miniature whitlow grass (Draba verna),whose four white petals are deeply notched; this is pre-eminently a roadside character; indeed, it is a regular tramp which has crossed the ocean and is apparently still on the way to other parts. This flower blooms as late as May also; we will find it on sandy or waste ground. It belongs to the Mustard family, which is characterized by four-petaled flowers.

Whitlow Grass.

The spring beauty (Claytonia Virginica) frequently appears as early as the first of April in southern New England and New York; its beautiful, pale, pink-white blossoms veined with a deeper pink, are among our prettiest wild flowers. I should expect to find the Claytonia, perhaps with a bumblebee visitor tumbling over its frail petals, in the rich grassy borders of the road near the edge of the tiny streamlet that finds its way to the hollow where the overflowing brook hurries along.

Spring Beauty.

I have already alluded to the bumblebee as “she.” As a matter of fact, in spring these big, golden-hipped creatures are generally queen bees searching for pollen and nectar.

The spring beauty is precisely the kind Spring Beauty. of a flower which needs the visit of the bumblebee; its pistil develops the graceful, curled tips (which are simply the portals leading to the immature seed at the base), too late to receive the pollen from the earlier developed anther! My drawing will show the immature pistil with its “closed doors” at the time the anthers which bear the pollen are ripe, and also the mature split-topped pistil whose open portals are pretty sure to scrape the pollen from the visiting bumblebee’s back. The spring beauty is not a self-fertilized plant; Nature has so arranged matters that the bee shall bring the ripened pollen from one flower to the ripened pistil of another.

Pistil of Spring Beauty:
A, immature
B, mature.

Among the earliest of the violets are the yellow ones. The round-leaved violet (Viola rotundifolia) is perhaps the earliest of all, as its tiny blossoms appear in Pennsylvania soon after the snow has gone. This violet grows on the woodland border, and we will find it hugging the damp rich mold, with its roundish leaves flat upon the ground; in midsummer these leaves are fully two inches in diameter. The flower is pale yellow marked with madder-brown veins. The downy yellow violet (Viola pubescens) grows about ten inches high; the tiny yellow blossom is borne on a short stem which issues from between a pair of leaves fully eight inches above the ground. Both of these flowers bloom sparingly in early May on the roadsides of the Northern States, but neither is as common as the blue violet (Viola cucullata), which, on or about Decoration Day, holds exclusive possession of the cold wet ground near the spring or the horse trough.

Round-leaved Violet.

The daintiest spring flower of all, I think, is the one which bears the rather rude but suggestive name, Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria). This beautiful little plant is frequently to be seen on the rocky ledges in the valley of the Hudson River and in the rich woods westward. It is also common in some parts of Central Park, New York, and Prospect Park, Brooklyn. The blossom is white tipped with creamy yellow, and the extremely ornamental foliage is blue-green. Dr. Abbott says: “To think that such a plant should be called ‘Dutchman’s breeches’! If this abomination were dropped from Gray’s Manual, perhaps in time a decent substitute would come in use. But why not call it dicentra?” I should answer, because to the great majority of people any name foreign to our language is either enigmatical or meaningless. Dutchman’s breeches means something, and it does not seem quite abominable if we look at it from the right point of view.

Dutchman's Breeches.

I like the name because of its Knickerbocker flavor, and although it is suggestive of a bit of rude humor, it is not without a certain poetic significance. The word Dutchman, to be sure, is so loosely used nowadays that it does not suggest much more than the unromantic personality of the prosaic corner grocer, but I have yet to find the American who is ashamed of his Dutch blood! So I do not think we need be ashamed because one of our wild flowers bears the name “Dutchman’s breeches.”3 Breeches, it is true, sounds a bit unrefined, but I insist that it is poetic; substitute the modern “pants” for it, imagine, if possible, Hendrick Hudson clothed in them, and, presto! all the poetry attached to the romantic vigils in the Catskills is gone. There are two flowers which are inseparably associated in my mind with Rip Van Winkle and Hendrick Hudson — one is Dutchman’s breeches and the other is Indian pipe; both of them are ghostly white, and both are commonly found in the country of the Dutch settlers. Why not let Dutchman’s breeches stand in commemoration of our Dutch ancestors?

In early spring the dainty flower lines every wooded bank which slopes toward the Hudson River. A close relative of Dicentra cucullaria is another little spring plant called squirrel corn (Dicentra Canadensis); this bears little two﷓spurred, heart-shaped, greenish white flowers tinged with pink, which are sweet-scented. We will find the squirrel corn only on the borders of rich woods in the North; the foliage is like that of its relative, and its roots bear tiny tubers resembling grains of corn (see my sketch of four tubers). It blooms throughout April.

Squirrel Corn.

Still another early spring flower is the wild ginger (Asarum Canadense).We will find this plant on the edge of the wood that flanks the hillside. The solitary flower is dull madder brown, and is seen close to the ground where the two leaf stems rise to the large furry leaves above which measure four or five inches across; these are broad, heart-shaped, and more or less pointed. The Canada wild ginger is quite common northward; its aromatic, stinging rootstock has the flavor of ginger.

Wild Ginger.

While we are yet passing through the woodland we will most likely find another early flower, the mandrake or May apple (Pociophyllum peltatum); this blooms in May. The drooping white flower with half a dozen or more petals is borne between two large leaves which have from five to nine lobes; the plant has also flowerless stems which bear only larger leaves supported in the middle like an umbrella. The fruit, which ripens in July and appears like a tiny lemon an inch and a half long, is edible; but both leaves and roots are drastic and poisonous—so says Dr. Gray. As for the fruit, I prefer to let it alone; it is simply rank!

May Apple.

The most conspicuous flowers which appear on the roadside in early spring are the alder and willow catkins. There are two species of alder which are commonly found on the borders of swamps and the damp hollows beside the highway; they flower in early April before the leaves are well out. The flowers are of two kinds,4 sterile and fertile; the former elongated and drooping (a nicely adjusted arrangement that enables the pollen to drop easily on the fertile flowers below), and the latter ovoid or oblong and somewhat erect. These catkins were formed in the preceding summer, and passed through the winter in a shape resembling a tiny, elongated green cone; now they appear in plumy clusters on the still leafless branchlets. Should we happen to jostle the alder bush a cloud of pollen arises from the sterile flowers, which probably reaches the fertile ones near by, and thus the latter become fertilized; but without doubt a few early bees will find the pretty ocher-yellow, lavender-brown, and greenish yellow catkins, and these will carry enough pollen on their backs to accomplish what the pollen cloud left unfinished.

Speckled Alder Catkins.

The spreckled or hoary alder (Alnus incana) is common northward and westward from Massachusetts. This species has broad, oval, dark-green leaves, sharply and irregularly toothed, which are whitish and downy beneath. The smooth alder (Alnus serrulata) is found southward and southwestward from Massachusetts; it forms dense thickets in Pennsylvania and Virginia on the borders of swamps, and farther south attains a height of thirty-five feet. The leaves are obovate, and green on both sides; they are usually smooth, but occasionally downy beneath. Alnus incana is as common along the roadsides in northern New Hampshire as Alnus serrulata is in southern Pennsylvania.

The willows contribute largely to the beauty of the roadside in spring by their beautiful golden-flecked catkins. The glaucous willow (Salix discolor) we will always find hanging over the river’s brink and the fence that borders the marshy meadow. The “pussies,” about an inch long, appear before the leaves in earliest spring; the sterile and fertile flowers are on separate plants. The catkins, which eventually attain a length of one and a half inches, have brown scales which finally become black; they are clothed with long shiny or silky hairs. The prevailing color of the mature sterile flower is the yellow of the pollen; the fertile flower has a softer, silky appearance, with less of the yellow tone. The leaf at maturity is from two to five inches long and at least one inch wide, irregularly and somewhat remotely toothed, smooth, and bright green. The glaucous willow grows from eight to fifteen feet high.

Glaucous Willow Catkins:
A, sterile flowers;
B, fertile flowers.

Gray Willow Catkins.

The prairie willow (Salix humilis) is common on dry and barren ground; the small catkins are from one half to one inch long, and they are frequently bent downward or outward from the branchlets; they appear before the leaves, and are at first silky gray and at last yellowish; the scales are dark brown. The leaf at maturity is from one and a half to three inches long, lance-shaped, without teeth, and the edge is often crinkly or wavy inclining weed stem, or seated on the margin among the leaves and grasses.

I know of no bird except the white-throated sparrow which sings continuously as “high” as Pickering’s frog. His song is usually pitched in the key of F minor, and his note is E slurred to F three octaves above middle C. Sometimes, however, I detect other tones pitched lower, perhaps in D; but E is generally the dominant note, in proof of which I will give William Hamilton Gibson’s concurrent testimony. He says, “The phee, phee, phee, phee is uttered in the note E four octaves above middle C.” But Mr. Gibson would have more correctly said E in the fourth octave above, because the treble register ends at the fourth C above the middle one.

How phenomenally high both the Peabody bird and the Pickering’s frog sing we quickly learn if we go to the piano and strike the highest E and B of the instrument (C is the final note); the bird outstrips the frog by about four tones and reaches B with apparent ease and undiminished power. After long cultivation I have succeeded in clearly whistling B flat, but with greatly reduced force; yet these little singers in the wooded hollow have golden, liquid whistles beside which mine is as “sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal”!

Pickering’s hyla leaves the swamp in early July and is a “tree toad” in autumn; then his shrill but less vivacious note is often mistaken for that of a bird. He is a great climber; each of his toes is furnished with a little circular pad by the aid of which he can hold fast to a slippery surface. Dr. Abbott gives a surprising account of the climbing powers of these tree toads; I quote what he says: “They are seldom content with a humble perch, and, when in summer they quit their aquatic and mud life for an arboreal one, they often wander to the very highest available resting places in the trees. I once found one at the very top of a tulip tree, at least sixty feet from the ground.” My drawing of Pickering’s frog is accompanied by a sketch of a pool near the road which crosses the Plymouth meadows (Plymouth, N. H.). In April, about five in the afternoon of a warm day, this charming bit of meadow road is “set to music” with the voices of a thousand Pickering’s frogs!

There is still another slender, long-legged swamp singer, called the Savannah cricket (Acris gryllus), who has a modified, rattling whistle. The Savannah cricket is about an inch long and green on the back, with a triangular mark on the head, and on the sides black edged with cream-color. These colors sometimes change to extremely pale tints.5 The only “crickets” which I have ever seen, however, were grass-green and decidedly dark-spotted, with long narrow heads and prominent eyes. This little frog also sings in the early spring in the same orchestra with the other peeper. His tones are not so pure, though, and they are pitched, I have noticed, in a lower key; they are loud, but not sufficiently so to be heard at a great distance. The Acris gryllus has a rattling, cricketlike note,6 which can not possibly be mistaken for the smooth, liquid whistle of Pickering’s hyla. He remains in the high grasses surrounding the marsh, and seldom if ever ascends trees. He is not in New England.

My sketch of the Sleepy Hollow bridge shows just one of those swampy spots in which the Savannah cricket finds a spring retreat exactly suited to his taste. My earliest recollection of this cricketlike frog is associated with this old roadway and the grasses and rushes which crowd its borders. Here in early spring Acris gryllus “crepitates” during the twilight hour to its heart’s content; here also, later in the season, the tree toad sings his pathetic, persuasive, “bleating” song — a song which lures one to linger by the old picket fence and recall Irving’s story of poor superstitious Ichabod Crane, whose cranium came near being smashed by Brom Bone’s terrible pumpkin. We wonder if there were any frogs singing on that eventful autumn evening! I have no doubt whatever that even if the frogs were silent the crickets were not, and certainly Œcanthus niveus must have sung if the night were not too cold. Irving records the fact that Ichabod did hear a few midnight notes — “occasionally the chirp of a cricket, or perhaps the guttural twang of a bullfrog” (but this was Rana Catesbiana, not our Acris) “from a neighboring marsh, . . . and a groan — it was but the rubbing of one huge bough upon another, as they were swayed about by the breeze.” Poor Ichabod! I know just how he must have felt, for the rubbing together of two big tree boughs in the forest at nightfall is about the most ghostly, blood-curdling kind of music I know of; it is only to be paralleled by the hollow, grinding, groaning sound of a ferryboat as it clumsily enters the slip.

Sleepy Hollow is quite as quaint and sleepy to-day as it was years ago when Irving drew its picture with his inimitable pen, and described it as “a little valley or rather lap of land among high hills, which is one of the quietest places in the whole world. A small brook glides through it with just murmur enough to lull one to repose; and the occasional whistle of a quail or tapping of a woodpecker is almost the only sound that ever breaks in upon the uniform tranquillity.”

Chorophilus triseriatus

Later in the spring or in early summer we will also hear the crepitating  —  in plain English, rattling or creaking  —  notes of the little frog called Chorophilus triseriatus; this little fellow never leaves the swamp for the trees, and he continues his song throughout the summer. We can not fail to recognize it if by any good chance we can gain the edge of the marsh where we may hear one singer’s voice well separated from the general chorus. It has a rising inflection, a moderate crescendo, and a limited range, thus:

The quality of the tones can not be conveyed by note; I might compare it to the scraping of the teeth of a comb, one end of which is wide and the other narrow — a comb, in fact, shaped like the steel one in a music box. The notes are not whistled, and they are therefore entirely unlike those of Pickering’s hyla; they are also not vivacious and shrill, but, on the contrary, moderate and soothing. The song of this frog must not be confused with that of the tree toad (Hyla versicolor) which we hear in early summer; but of the tree toad’s notes I will have something to say further on.

The Chorophilus triseriatus is about an inch long; he has slender limbs and toes, and a light ash-gray body striped brown; his skin beneath is yellow-white and somewhat granular; in fact, he is not a smooth frog in appearance or in voice! This species is common in the Northwest and in the swampy barrens of southwestern New Jersey. Mr. E. D. Cope has also found it in Gloucester County, N. J., and I am quite sure I have heard it in Monmouth County; but I do not recollect having heard its unmistakable crescendo tones in New England. Like the Acris and Pickering’s hyla, it sings in the latter part of March or early April, but it continues through the spring and early summer, and sometimes it can be heard in the warmest part of the day.

Yet another musical but somewhat harsh note comes to our ears from the marsh in early April; it is that of the wood frog (Rana sylvatica), who is brown-yellow tan color, except under the eye, where there is a black streak. This frog is about two inches long. He lives in the woods throughout the summer, and rarely, if ever, visits the water at that time; but during the breeding season, about the middle of April when the weather is warm, the wooded margin of the pond will resound with the spasmodic, hoarse, clucking notes of this sylvan character — for he really prefers the wood to the water. Roma sylvatica is common from Maine to Ohio and Michigan.

Wood Frog.


1 The bumblebee of spring is nearly always a “queen.”

2 Also named Anemone nemorosa.

3 That these at least possessed magnificent proportions the following historical incident certainly proves beyond a shadow of doubt: Some Indians were induced by a settler to sell for a small consideration as much of their land as could be bounded by a pair of breeches. To their chagrin the Dutchman cut his ample breeches into narrow strips, and sewing these together formed with them so long a strip that it encompassed several acres!

4 The alders are monoecious; that is, the stamens and pistils are in separate flowers on the same bush.

5 Like the chameleon, the tree toad changes color to match its surroundings, of course as a protection against its enemies. Thus on a tree trunk the creature will appear brown, but among the leaves it becomes greenish.

6 A note so exactly like that of the cricket that we might think it was a cricket singing; but the tone is less shrill, more powerful, and mellow.

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