A Walk in the Woods in March

The weather this past March was kind of wacky. It didn’t exactly come in like a lion, nor did it go out like a lamb. Instead, it alternated on a weekly basis between much colder than normal and much warmer than normal. The net result is that the plants got pretty confused; the daffodils were very unhappy, and it looks like we’re probably going to have a poor crop of peaches and apples this year.

Some people have asked exactly where I walk when I walk in the woods, so here’s a map of Ohio (“The Squarish State”) showing the location of Athens County:



For those of you who either flunked geography or are from outside the U.S., here’s a Google Earth view:


And here’s a closer look at my neighborhood (also via Google Earth):


As you can see, when I say I find things walking around my yard, I’m really in the middle of the forest.

Many of the trees have begun flowering in March. Usually, the first trees to complete the cycle and drop their seeds are elms, followed closely by red and silver maples:


This is an American elm (Ulnus americana), which is a tree of riverside habitats (or city streets, as this one is). The other common species is slippery elm (U. rubra), which is more of an upland species. Large elm trees are rare in the wild in the eastern U.S. and Canada these days, having been devastated by Dutch elm disease, but can still be found where they’re under a watchful eye.

Most forest trees have small, inconspicuous flowers. One tree whose flowers are small but certainly not inconspicuous is the eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis):


Redbuds begin to bloom right around the end of March here.

I mentioned Virginia pine last month. Here’s an eastern white pine (Pinus strobus). White pine is fairly easy to identify: The needles are long and very fine, in bunches of (usually) five. (Most pines have needles in bunches of two or three.) The foliage is slightly blue-green, and the fineness of the needles gives the tree an overall “soft” appearance.


Woodland wildflowers are starting to show themselves, although the non-native species are still outnumbering the natives. Here’s birdeye or field speedwell (Veronica persica), native to Eurasia:


If you saw these in the woods, you might pass them off as common dandelions, but they’re not:


These are coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), also Eurasian in origin. Coltsfoot tea has been used in traditional medicine as a cough treatment, but it apparently can cause serious liver damage. Life is full of little tradeoffs….

Coltsfoot is distinguished from dandelion by growing in areas that are heavily shaded by trees in summer, blooming before any foliage is visible, and having reddish scales on the flower stalks (dandelion flower stalks are smooth). Here’s an actual dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) for comparison:


Some of the earliest blooming native wildflowers are eastern spring beauties (Claytonia virginica):


Also blooming towards the end of March are cutleaf toothwort (Cardamine concatenata):


and azure bluet (Houstonia caerulea):


You might find these odd-looking things sticking straight up out of the ground in wet spots in the woods; they’re the fruiting bodies of sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis):


The fern gets its name from being very sensitive to cold, dying back at the slightest touch of frost. The leaves will come up later in the spring, after any risk of frost is past.

It’s too early for most mushrooms and other fungi, but a few, such as this turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) are present year-round:


This fungus is one of the more common causes of spalting in wood.

Finally, the March entry in our sedge-of-the-month club is Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica):


It looks like a small tuft of grass, although the flowers are distinctive:


These are a bit past their prime; you can find better images online. Pennsylvania sedge is common in woodland where the soil is relatively dry.

April is the month for wildflowers around here, so take a walk in the woods, see what you can find, and next month we can compare notes.

–Steve Schafer


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5 Responses to A Walk in the Woods in March

  1. tpobrienjr says:

    Thanks for the nice walk. Here in the Texas Hill Country we have prickly pear cactus, huisache, retama, live oak, mesquite, cabbage palm, some kinda juniper, pink evening primrose, firewheel, bluebonnet, rain lily, agave, aloe vera, and lots of introduced flora. Most of the native stuff has thorns.

  2. Jim Maher says:

    Just wonderful!

  3. Tico Vogt says:

    What a pleasant trip, thanks.

  4. Glenn Ingram says:

    Coltsfoot can cause some liver damage if taken long-term so you actually don’t have to do the trade-off you’re just treating a cough in the short term. Also, another great way to tell Dandelion from the lookalikes is that dandelions only have one flower head per stem vs coltsfoot has a few as in your picture. Thanks for the walk!

  5. mdsmithjr says:

    I really enjoy these posts. We all need to spend more time appreciating our local flora, both when it’s alive and when it’s furniture.

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