Catch Spring Red-handed

[Buds of Red Maple / Acer rubrum]

February is the best month. Why?
You can watch spring start.
You can catch it in your hand.

How? With a Red maple.

Silver maples work too, but Silvers aren’t common street trees, and Reds are.

To do:
1. Find a Red maple near you: one you can easily look at once a day.
(A neighbor’s yard, at the sidewalk, a parking lot? Tell me if you need help.)

2. Find the fat buds at the end of a low twig. Stare at them. 

3. Take a picture (it’ll last longer).

4. Then, compare this twig from day to day.

The buds will swell, the scales will burst, and all sorts of amazing bits will emerge: shaggy bits (male flowers), dangly bits (female flowers), red velvet “Y”s (the branched “style” on female flowers), and then tiny red helicopters (the fertilized female flower).

From bud to flower to fruit, with your own eyeballs! Just wait and see!
Actually, don’t wait, because it’s going to happen any minute!

Want a preview? Here’s my post from a previous spring, with some shaggies, danglies, and fruit bits: Red Maple from Flower to Fruit.

Extra credit (if you are new to Tree ID):
Opposite vs Alternate. While staring at the twig, note that the buds are arranged opposite to each other. Maples have “opposite branching,” which is a big clue to ID when faced with an unknown tree. In Naturalist training, we learned to remember the opposite types as “MADBuck:” Maple, Ash, Dogwood, Buckeye.
In contrast, most trees grow leaves / twigs in an alternate arrangement: staggered from each other along the branch.
So, if you see opposites, you’ve already narrowed an ID in a big way.

Other signs of Spring this week:

-American elm buds are swelling, but elm branches tend to be too high to see.

-Robins started their territorial displays. All winter they get along fine, but suddenly, they get grabby with the birdbath and with the whole yard. And, now’s when they start zooming *low* over the streets, chasing each other. Unfortunately, they fly at the height of a car wheel—at dawn and dusk especially—so watch out.

-Spring Beauty buds are forming and will start blooming very soon. These exquisite ephemerals only happen in old yards without herbicides / weed ‘n’ feeds. (Claytonia virginica.)

-And a pair of ants is mating on the outside of the kitchen window!


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Joanna Brichetto is a naturalist and writer in Nashville, the hackberry-tree capital of the world.
She writes about everyday marvels amid everyday habitat loss, and her essays have appeared in Creative NonfictionBrevity, Fourth Genre, Hippocampus, The Hopper, Flyway, The Common, Stonecrop Review, The Fourth River and other journals. Her forthcoming book is Paradise in a Parking Lot: Unlikely Stories from Urban Nature.