Inside JCPRD: Signs of spring are all around

By David Markham

Even as life in the human world has turned weird this year, spring in the natural world marches on.

With recent rains and warmer temperatures, nature is waking up, birds are singing, and the world is getting greener.

With lots of free time, consider venturing out to a park to take a look as the natural world revives, but only if you feel comfortable doing so and can practice the recommended social distancing.

It’s not just grass in the suburbs that’s greening up. Trees and bushes are budding leaves, and redbuds and other trees are blooming. Elm trees are already dropping seeds, and maple trees will be soon.

Senior Park Naturalist Molly Postlewait recently took me on a spring walk at Ernie Miller Park to point out some of the signs of spring.

She noted some small pawpaw trees near the Little Cedar Creek growing in a shaded area. Small non-descript buds on the trees will turn into purple blossoms by mid-May, she added.

“Pawpaws are edible, and are sometimes called the prairie banana, or the Ozark banana,” she said. “They will ripen in late August or September, but opossums and raccoons eat the fruit more than people do.”

Lots of wildflowers are currently in bloom, including purple and yellow woodland violets, lavender Sweet William phlox, and Henbit, which briefly turns fields purple with its flowers.

The mullein plant

Another plant to look for is called the mullein plant, which has dusty-looking soft leaves resembling the better-known lambs ear.

“Mullein is a native, and back in the day, people used it for many things,” Postlewait said. “It is sometimes called pioneer toilet paper, but it was also said to be used for lining babies’ diapers, and as a bandage or a compress. It’s very soft.”

Two of my personal favorite early spring woodland plants are the Mayapple and Jack-in-the-pulpits, both of which can be found at Ernie Miller Park. Mayapples look like tiny beach umbrellas, and tend to grow in large groupings. Under the umbrella is a small bud that will bloom and later turn into a red fruit. Jack-in-the-pulpit is a distinctive, large, cylindrical, hooded flower, which is green with brown stripes. In late summer, they’ll produce a cluster of bright red berries.

Spring is also a great time for mushrooms, but Postlewait said she’s never found the popular morel mushrooms in Ernie Miller Park.

And it’s not just plants and fungus that are coming back to life.

“We’ve been seeing lots of snails, and with all the rain we have a lot of worms coming up, and the robins really are liking the worms,” she said. “Snakes, like garter snakes, and turtles are on the move. Several kinds of lizards and toads are coming out of hibernation. We are hearing songs at the pond and wetlands of spring peepers. Spotting tadpoles is a favorite activity for nature explorers.”

One of the many birds that’s back after winter migration are the vultures, she pointed out.

“They are the clean-up crew which get rid of winter’s roadkill,” Postlewait pointed out. “I am also hearing lots of nature‘s music from woodpeckers, as well as songbirds too, and I am always excited to see a scissor-tailed flycatcher.”

Spring is also breeding season for the barred owl, and Postlewait said it’s fairly common to hear their calls of “Who cooks for you?” echoing thru the forest in the evening.

Exploring nature is a great way to get your mind off other matters, but be sure to stay safe, not just from coronavirus, but from poison ivy, hungry ticks, and mosquitos.