What’s blooming and budding at the UA Arboretum.

The clouds cleared a little towards the end of the day, enabling us to go for a what’s-blooming-and-budding hike at the nearby arboretum. Rucksacks strapped to our backs, we set out on the Poplar Trail “to see what we could see”, as Prophet explained.

The Eldest tried to sneak his special gift- Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus– into his rucksack, but I convinced him to leave it behind and just roam the woods without a field or foraging guide, wander with only our senses and nature journals to to record observations.

Well, wouldn’t you know, the left-behind book came up almost immediately when the Eldest spotted what he claimed to be none other than Podophyllum peltatum, or May apple. Since this wasn’t the first “May apple” sighting of the season, I was skeptical. But the Eldest assured me these plants were “the real thing”.

Also called American mandrake, the May apple is the stuff of magic and mystery. The Eldest buzzed with glee- “Look, there’s a tiny flower bud!”, he shouted, pointing to a small green berry under the umbrella-like leaves. In his best “old man” voice, he cautioned that much of the plant is poisonous, including the roots, the fruit seeds, and the unripe fruit.

Prophet spotted the first solitary violet.

A division of labor emerged in which the Eldest identified various tall,gangly trees while the Prophet raised a hullabaloo over any flowers along the path. Never one to be left out, Gnome quickly took it upon herself to frighten every slumbering bird in the forest by shouting, “BUD! B-UUU-D! BUUUUUUD!” every time she spotted a leaf or flower bud. The ghost of Thoreau was horrified by the racket.

Unidentified wildflowers and buds.

“That’s poisonous,” chirped the Eldest before Gnome could pick one.

The beautiful vine and intoxicating scent of yellow jessamine that drives the insects mad come twilight.

The familiar three leaves of the trillium poked out from beneath autumn’s dusky, decomposing blanket.

We marvelled over how the trillium unfurled its tie-dyed leaves, opening its arms wide to reveal a deep purple flower brushed with golden flecks. Should we stop to sketch it?

The corky growths on a winged elm tree.

“Let’s stop by the big magnolia tree,” said I-can’t-remember-which small folk. Somehow, we agreed to continue hiking, mystified for a moment by the strange (possibly fungal) growth Prophet discovered lining the branches of a small tree. Budmaster Gnome observed that the growth wasn’t keeping the tree from budding at the tips of the branches. Carol suggested it might be a winged elm, Ulmus alata, for whom such corky growths are normal.

We stopped and took out our nature journals- everyone except Pinka started sketching. Fortunately, Gnome brought along a charming little wildflower mystery for us to model.

Prophet’s middle name, “Magnolia”, makes sense.

Saucer magnolia

On our way back to the space ship, we lingered over a few lovely varities of magnolia trees, including the Saucer magnolia (or what I called the “saucer cup magnolia”) and the sticky-sweet Star magnolia.

Star magnolia

One of my favorite things about nature study is the anticipation of going home with our observations and then trying to identify what we saw. The temptation to plug into the iPhone or reference in the field is tremendous- but much good comes from waiting. It serves as a reminder that the details we capture in our journals are the only evidence that remains for the identification. So we must take thorough descriptive notes and do our best to capture the species in our illustrations.

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