Friday, February 17, 2023

Liquid Winters and Time-Bending Blooms

Long time local botanist Betty Horn sent me an email some days back--February 10, to be exact--reporting that she had just found a hepatica blooming in Herrontown Woods. Hepaticas in early February? This was news. 

Without asking, I knew nearly exactly where she had found it. If you're a field botanist, you maintain a mental map of where you've found certain special plants growing, and in Princeton, my mental map has exactly one location for hepaticas, along the ridge in Herrontown Woods. Sure enough, she had found it there, given a head start by the warmth of a nearby boulder and the snowless winter. 

Hearing the news, another botanist friend, Fairfax Hutter, checked out some hepaticas she knows of in Hopewell. No flowers, nor any buds, she reported. Betty looked back at her records and told me that "the usual time for hepaticas to bloom is early to mid March, and sometimes as late as the first week in April." 

Another early flower is snowdrops--a nonnative spring bulb that decorates the grounds around Veblen House. The first bloom I noticed this year, for the record, was on Feb. 6.

Before moving to Princeton in 2003, I lived in Durham, NC for 8 years. Winters there were much like the one we've had here in New Jersey this year. The default was no snow, and if a snowstorm did come, it became a spontaneous holiday, with schools shut down for several days. It could be said that New Jersey is the new North Carolina, with Georgia in hot pursuit, so to speak. 

The shift towards a liquid winter has made for dramatic changes in our "fillable-spillable" minipond in the backyard. It's a 35 gallon tub that captures runoff from the roof, originally conceived as a pond that could be easily emptied when our pet ducks had made it muddy. 

Like an artist who has lost inspiration, it hasn't produced very interesting ice patterns the past few winters, nothing like that stretch from 2018-19, when intermittent freezes and thaws caused it to behave like a canvas for the profound artistry of nature. Each freeze would bring new and endlessly varied patterns in the ice. 

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