We are living in strange, unprecedented times. Keeping our distance from other humans and putting our fast-paced life on pause is needed to keep our loved ones safe. All we can do now is offer help to our friends, family and neighbors who have sustained losses and are having difficulties in this new reality.
Nature can also help. It has healing powers. Maybe the one good thing that has come out of this is that we have been forced to stop, look around, and appreciate the world around us.
Signs of spring are all around us. Some early migrant birds have returned, frogs are calling, and there are even native flowers blooming. To see these native blooms, you need to look up! The red buds of silver maple trees have burst open and the strange flowers have shown themselves. I have observed the 100+ year old silver maples in my yard every year for the past 25 years and have seen some sort of red flowers opening in the spring, then dying and falling to the ground before the “helicopters” and the leaves came a little later in the season. But it was not until very recently that I looked closely and began to research what I was seeing.
My very old tree, which I now call the grandmother tree, has all female flowers. Silver maples use wind for pollination, so they don’t need showy petals to attract insects or birds. When the red buds open in a female flower, fuzzy red clusters of pistils (or the female reproductive organs) extend out into the air, just waiting for some pollen to float by. Most silver maples have either all female or all male flowers (although I do have one tree in my yard that has both!) The male flowers extend stamens (the male reproductive parts) with balls of pollen past open buds, ready to send their genetic material on it’s way. There is only a small window where pollination can take place, so the trees have to be ready. Somehow all the trees in the neighborhood synchronize bloom time, allowing the pollen to be dispersed at the same time female flowers are receptive. And the system must work. I have hundreds of thousands of seeds in the form of “helicopters” covering the ground most years.
The small details of a flower are incredible to inspect and observe up close. On a larger scale, the timing of blooms, fruits, leaf-out or fall colors of an entire tree can be monitored to give information about the tree’s life cycle and the environment that the tree exists within. This timing of life cycle events is called phenology. We can monitor phenological events for the seasonal changes of trees, the migration times of birds, the emergence of insect larvae, or just about anything in nature. And just like the synchronized bloom times of the silver maple flowers, these events need to be coordinated in order to support a healthy ecosystem. Insects must be available at the time migratory birds arrive and are feeding their young, which in turn depends on flowering and leaf-out times of certain plants. Unfortunately climate change has altered nature’s calendar and the timing of these important events is shifting. But, by using our powers of observation, we can provide information as citizen scientists about so many things. We can help scientists manage populations or landscapes to allow nature to survive these challenges. At the same time, maybe we will help ourselves. By walking in the woods, stopping to just sit and notice the tiny details and the beauty around us, we can reconnect with the natural world that we are all a part of. We can find what has been missing in our hectic lives and start to heal.
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