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Fall’s rival

Ranger Steve

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Early May colors compete with October colors. Plants do not try to outdo themselves at different times of the year. It is us that takes notice of the brilliant shades of green. In fall we anticipate reds and yellows mixed with greens and plan travel during cool dry air temperatures suited for wearing jackets. 

During the first half of May, the long-awaited call to get outdoors begs us to notice changes we have been longing to witness during the first weeks of spring when the sun crossed the equator and daylight hours increased. Longer sun hours warm the soil and start plants shipping stored sugars and water through stems beginning in February. Maple sugar enthusiasts tap trees in the final weeks of winter so they do not miss the surge of concentrated sugars feeding buds. 

It is not until after the spring equinox that most ephemerals bloom to provide us with the first flash of greens and flower colors. Under bare tree branches, the forest floor brightens our days with hepaticas, spring beauties, trout lilies, spring cress, and an array of other early blooms. They are followed by large-flowered trilliums, jack-in-the-pulpits, marsh marigolds, and wood anemones. 

Small trees like serviceberry are covered with white blossoms in late April and they lose petals as choke cherry white flowers open in May. The rapid change is enticing. More subtly, a mid-May color pageant progresses with greater splendor than the showy bright end of the color spectrum evident in fall. 

Leaves pop from buds but remain small and unnoticed during frosty spring weather. When warmth finally arrives, leaves expand faster than they can grow. They fill like water balloons in a few short days and work vigorously to build leaf tissues inside by filling them with structural substance. Feel newly expanded leaves to notice how delicate they remain during their first days. Spring winds tear some from branches but most cling to branches as they ready for summer’s work of photosynthesis and tree growth. 

Fresh from the bud, leaves vary across the color spectrum. Tiny leaf cells that rested under protective bud scales all winter were ready for their spring work once conditions became suitable. Nearly empty of water, the embryonic leaves were free of damage from freezing temperatures in cold winter months. Once they are freed from buds and fill with water, they become vulnerable to late frost damage. The frail cells full of water easily burst when water freezes in them. When massive damage occurs the plant must use vital stored resources to produce a new set of leaves. When flowers are frozen they are not regenerated for this year’s fruit production. They must wait another year to produce seeds. During a tree’s decades of life, it needs to only produce one offspring that will mature and reproduce to replace it in order to maintain a stable population. Usually tens of thousands of little trees start life but most do not survive. When many do an expanding forest ensues. 

The spring forest rivals fall colors with greatness unequalled. Tiny new leaves arrive with red anthocyanin pigment that serves as a sunscreen protecting tissues from sunburn. Notice new leaf color as buds open to release new growth. It does not take long before they green to uncountable shades. Lime green on aspens equals their joyful fall yellow. Deep dark green pines stand near aspens contrasting with spring’s fresh shades. Wild cherries hold a lingering maroon in leaves as they gain full size to produce a fuller deep green. 

Sassafras grows in open sunlight clusters to create a green unlike other trees. In nearby open areas, new aspen seedlings that do not thrive in shade start clones that spread underground and produce new shoots. One can recognize different genetic clones by seeing annual leaf out times for separate clones and different fall color change times. Trees in each clone are genetically identical and leaf out at the same time. It is not when leaves appear from buds that amazes us most. Their color among the green backdrop of other trees rivals the best fall colors. Trees like sugar maples, hickories, and oaks follow in sequences with their initial reds followed by green mosaics creating a spotted countryside. Each species contributes to the variety of green shades and individual trees have unique nature niche adaptations that are special to them in the same manner each of us is special. 

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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