Here to return to
SIGNS OF SPRING
THEY are not imaginary, but visible and tangible. I have brought them home from the woods in my hands, and here they lie before me. I call them my books of the Minor Prophets.
This one is an alder branch. Along its whole length, spirally disposed at intervals of an inch or two, are fat, purplish leaf-buds, each on its stalk. As I look at them I can see, only four months away, the tender, richly green, newly unfolded, partly grown leaves. How daintily they are crinkled! And how prettily the edges are cut! It is like the work of fairy fingers. And what perfection of veining and texture! I have never heard any one praise them; but half the things that bring a price in florists' shops are many degrees less beautiful.
Still more to the purpose, perhaps, more conspicuous, at all events, as well as nearer to maturity, and so more distinctly prophetic of spring, are the two kinds of flower-buds that adorn the ends of the twigs. These also are of a deep purplish tint, which in the case of the larger (staminate) catkins turns to a lovely green on the shaded under side. Flower-buds, I call them; but they are rather packages of bud-stuff wrapped tightly against the weather, cover overlapping cover. The best shingling of the most expert carpenter could not be more absolutely rain-proof. “Now do your worst,” says the alder. The mud freezes about its roots and the water about the base of its stein, but it keeps its banners flying. Why it should be at such pains to anticipate the season is more than I can tell. Perhaps it is none of my business. Enough that it is the alder's way. There is no swamp in New England but has a shorter and brighter winter because of it.
This smooth, freckled, reddish-barked twig is black birch (or sweet birch), taken from a sapling, and therefore bearing no aments, which on adult trees are already things of grace and promise. I broke it (it invites breaking by its extreme fragility) for its leaf-buds, pointed, parti-colored, —brown and yellowish green, — tender-looking, but hardy enough to withstand all the rigors of New England frost. The broken end of the branch, where I get the spicy fragrance of the inner bark, brings back a sense of half-forgotten boyish pleasures. I used to nibble the bark in spring. A little dry it was, as I remember it, but it had the spicy taste of wintergreen (checkerberry), without the latter's almost excessive pungency, or bite. Some of my country-bred readers must have been accustomed to eat the tender reddish young checkerberry leaves, and will understand perfectly what I mean by that word “bite.” I wonder if they had our curious Old Colony name for those vernal dainties. It sounds like cannibalism, but we gathered them and ate them in all innocence (the taste is on my tongue now) as “youngsters.” No doubt the tree gets its name, “sweet birch,” from this savoriness of its green inner bark, rather than from the pedagogic employment of its branches in schoolrooms as a means of promoting the sweet uses of adversity.
Now I take up another freckled, easily broken twig, with noticeably short branchlets, some of them less than an inch in length. Every one, even the shortest, is set with brown globular buds of the size of pinheads. Toward the tip the main stem also bears clusters of such tiny spheres. If you do not know the branch by sight, I must ask you to smell or taste the bark. “Sassafras?” No, though the guess is not surprising. It is spice-bush. The buds are flower-buds. The shrub is one of our very early bloomers, and makes its preparations accordingly. While flowers are still scarce enough to attract universal attention, it is thickly covered with sessile or almost sessile yellow rosettes, till it looks for all the world like the early-flowering cornel (Cornus Mas), which blossoms about the same time in gardens. Seeing these spice-bush buds, though January is still young, I can almost see Mayday; and when I snap the brittle stem and sniff the fresh wood, I can almost believe that I have snapped off half a century from my life. What a good and wholesome smell it is! Among the best of nature's own.
Here is a poplar twig, with well-developed, shapely buds. I pull off the outer coverings and lay bare a mass of woolly fibres, fine and soft, within which the tender blossoms lie in germ. And next is a willow stem. Already, though winter is no more than a fortnight old, the “pussy” has begun to push off its dark coverlid, as if it were in haste to be up and feel the sun. Yes, spring will soon be here, and the willow proposes not to be caught napping.
These long, slender, cinnamon-colored, silky buds, like shoemakers' awls for shape, are from a beech tree. The package is done up so tightly and skillfully that my clumsy human fingers cannot undo it without tearing it in pieces. Layer after layer I remove, taking all pains, and here at the heart is the softest of vegetable silk. How did the wood learn to secrete such delicacies, and to wrap them with such miraculous security? Why could it not wait till spring, and save the need of all this caution? I do not know. How should I? But I am glad of every such vernal prophecy, as well as of every such proof of vegetable intelligence. It would be strange if a beech tree could not do some things better than you and I can. Every dog knows his own trick.
Next comes a dry, homely, crooked, blackish, dead-looking twig, the slender divisions of which are tipped with short clusters of very fine purplish buds, rich in color, but so small as readily to escape notice. This I broke from a bush in a swampy place. It Leucothoë me for personal reasons. Year after year, as I turned the leaves of Gray's Manual on one errand and another, I read this romantic-sounding Greek name, and wondered what kind of plant it stood for. Then, during a May visit to the mountains of North Carolina, I came upon a shrub growing mile after mile along roadsides and brooksides, loaded down, literally, with enormous crops of sickishly sweet, white flower-clusters. At first I took it for some species of Andromeda, but on bringing it to book found it to be Leucothoë. I was delighted to see it. It is a satisfaction to have a familiar name begin to mean something. Finally, a year or two later, passing in winter through a bit of swamp where I had been accustomed to wander as a child, with no thought of finding anything new (as if there were not something new everywhere), I stopped before a bush bearing purple buds and clusters of dry capsules. The capsules might have been those of Andromeda, for aught I should have noticed, but the buds had a novel appearance and told a different story. Again I betook myself to the Manual, and lo! this bush, growing in the swamp that I should have thought I knew better than any other in the world, turned out to be another species — our only northern one — of Leucothoë. So I might have fitted name and thing together long ago, if I had kept my eyes open. As Hamlet said, “There's the rub.” Keeping one's eyes open isn’t half so easy as it sounds. Really, the bush is one that nobody except a botanist ever sees (which is the reason, doubtless, why it has no vernacular name); or if here and there a man does see it, it is sure to be in flowering time (in middle June), when he passes it by without a second glance as “high-bush blueberry.” I am pleased to have it growing on my present beat, and to give it a place here in my collection of Minor Prophets.
How little the two (Leucothoë and blueberry) resemble each other at this time of the year may be seen by comparing the stem I have been talking about with the one lying next to it — a short twig, every branchlet of which ends in a very bright, extremely handsome (if one stops to regard it) pinkish globe. This is the high-bush blueberry in its best winter estate. Every bud is like a jewel.
Only one branch remains to be spoken of, for I took but a small handful: a dark green — blackish-green — tarnished stem, the two branches of which bear each a terminal bud of the size of a pea. This specimen you will know at once by its odor, if you were ever happy enough to dig sassafras roots, or to eat sassafras lozenges, such as used to come — perhaps they do still — rolled up in paper, as bankers roll up coins. “Sassafras lossengers,” we called them, and the shopkeeper (who is living yet, and still “tending store” at ninety-odd) seemed never in doubt as to what we meant. Each kind of lozenge, peppermint, cayenne, checkerberry, and the rest, came always in paper of a certain color. Can I be wrong in my recollection of the sassafras tint? I would soon find out if I could go into the old store. I would lay five cents upon the counter (the price used to be less than that, but it may have gone up since my last purchase), and say, “A roll of sassafras lossengers.” And I miss my guess, or the wrapper would be yellow.1_________________________________
1 How fallible a thing is a man's memory! The wrapper was not yellow, but green. Yellow was for lemon. So more than one friendly correspondent has made haste to inform me, and the venerable shopkeeper himself has sent me a roll of the “lossengers” to prove it. My compliments to him.