Mayflowers come early



Weather on Mount Desert Island this year has been a confusing mixture of snow, cold and warm days, spring touches, rain, gentle winds and wild storms. It’s a confusing time for plants and wildlife. Some bears already have awakened from their sleep, and some plants are blooming way ahead of schedule. A friend of mine near the Crooked Road this week found arbutus or mayflower buds. Normally this flower blooms in May, and here we are only in the last weeks of March! Crocuses and other such bulbs are also about to bloom here and there in sunny locations. It’s hard to take winter storm warnings seriously. Skiers, users of snow mobiles, ice derby planners, ice fishermen and cross-country snow enthusiasts have not been happy with this Maine winter. Last year it was very different.

Mayflowers are truly spring flowers. A longtime friend of mine, now gone once told me that his rather tough and cranky father always gathered mayflowers for his wife in the springtime and presented them in a little ceremony. It was traditional to do that, and through the years, mayflowers have become scarcer where they once had been abundant. I’m afraid I gave him my ecological sort of comment about never picking them and causing them to disappear in many areas. It really is best to leave the plant where you find it, take photos, and by all means get low to the ground and breathe in its sweet perfume.

The mayflower usually blooms in May, and whatever the season, it is quite easy to find on this island if you know what to look for. Its evergreen leaves are oval and on rounded bases. When the plant gets older, the leaves are a light olive green and more or less rusty spotted. On light, ruddy-brown, rough and hairy stems, the plant creeps close to the ground under decayed leaves and grasses. New leaves develop in June after the white aromatic flowers have bloomed. To see them the third week in March is a bit unusual, as was this year’s winter weather. Flies and bees pollinate this earliest of flowers. How early blooming of this special flower affects the future of this plant remains to be seen.

Skunk cabbage is an entirely different sort of plant. Actually the buds and flowers are visible in the fall, and they may at that time already be four to six inches tall. It is, however, not until February and March that avid flower watchers go out hunting for them. The skunk cabbage proclaims spring in the very teeth of winter!

Its egg-shaped flower cluster is surrounded by a shell-like purple-brown sheath streaked with yellow. The plant’s large green leaves do not appear until long after the flower has gone to seed. The name skunk cabbage comes from the pungent skunk-like odor which, although it is in all parts of the plant, is noticeable only when the big cabbage-like green leaves are bruised or crushed.

As you search diligently for this flower of spring or late winter, look for a wine red spathe beginning to open, and then you will be able to peek inside and see the knob of flowers there. Because the flower spathe has the color of rotting meat and an unpleasant smell, it is visited by flesh flies. It is quite a unique and beautiful plant in the spring and well worth seeing. Spiders have learned that flesh flies like to visit the skunk cabbage, so they build webs over the entrance of the spathe in order to trap them more easily. Sometimes woodland birds will even nest in the hollow of a skunk cabbage spathe.

Keep your eyes on the skies these days, for birds in courtship often fly and show off to the opposite sex. Their aerial maneuvers are beautiful and exciting to watch. Eagles, because of their size and beauty, are especially fun to watch. When a pair is courting, you may get to see them lock talons and freefall for a short distance before they let go. Keep looking up these days for there are many eagles living here.

Woodcocks are not the only birds making an aerial display, often called “sky dancing.” The male woodcock’s s sky dance seems to be well choreographed and quite predictable. I’ve only heard of a few birds being seen here on MDI so far this year.

Birds are expressing themselves to a potential mate and showing how healthy they are and generally giving honest information for the female. It seems to be the male’s choice in mating. Males do all sorts of colorful skin movements, also some fancy foot work. In a tropical bird, I once saw the black and red bird do a great “moon walk” on the branch to impress his choice. Other birds fluffed up their wings, and many of the others made amazing twittering sounds with the wind rushing by their wings. There also is a lot of neck rubbing and showing of beautiful feet as with the blue-footed boobies. My only encounter with a blue-footed booby was in Costa Rica. My daughter and I found an injured booby on the beach and carried it to the local veterinarian. It was a memorable walk for me, cradling such a beautiful sea bird!

Even the waterfowl nesting on this island have some interesting mating rituals. Take time to watch them. There is a lot to learn about courtship rituals performed by our local birds.

Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

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Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.
Ruth Grierson

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