Early Signs of Spring in the New River Valley

Bittercress is always the first wildflower by the river bottomland, but the exact species is hard to pin down. Both Pennsylvania bittercress (Cardamine pensylvanica) and hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsute) are small plants with tiny white flowers that bloom when the greens of wild onions are appearing and just before the purple carpet of ground ivy goes wild. Bittercress appears before a more showy mustard family member blankets the hayfields with gold (land cress, Barbarea verna). Spring peepers herald the earlier, white-blooming arrivals, usually the first March evenings after mild days. In many years of informal record keeping, late February is the earliest the amorous males begin calling, but this year the frog song began the second week of March. This past winter we had record-breaking snow and ice cover, for two months even in the lower elevations.

This winter was also unusual with huge ice bergs littering the river side. After a series of river freezes that normally occur when the temperatures dip down into the single digits or lower for a string of days, warm, rainy weather broke up the ice and cast it aside, creating huge ice sculptures on the banks. Most of the ice is gone now in the lower elevations, except for a few north-facing coves. Storm damage was also the worst in many years. Trail crews have been working hard to clear all the blow-downs on the Appalachian Trail, and parts of the Blue Ridge Parkway near Asheville and Mount Mitchell will be closed until May. None of the trees are leafing out yet, but weeping willow will be the first, soon. A friend reported seeing white hepatica on the Virginia Creeper Trail near Abingdon. Daffodils are blooming and any other earlier bulbs that the deer did not eat. They ate all mine.