cleanup, week 3: snow melts, shoots emerge—but why are so many pinkish or purple?

NO MORE “S” WORD, as in snow—the last tenacious piles finally relented overnight Thursday-into-Friday with a warm rain. And though some fleeting sleet is forecast (please stop!) the new “S” word of the moment is shoots.

These little discoveries are what keep me going as I crawl around, teasing fallen twigs and leaf litter from among the bulb foliage, cutting back perennials and generally trying to make order in the post-winter chaos. Because so many things pop out of the ground tinged pinkish or purple, it’s like an Easter egg hunt. Each colorful prize unearthed beneath the detritus is a cause for glee.

There are a few new birds, too, to likewise encourage me this last week: Hello, phoebe, with your distinctive, eponymous song. Welcome back; my porch is your porch, so nest away.

Not new, but lately bolder: A trio of crows watches each morning as I hang the bird feeder, apparently having caught on to the handful of extra seed I scatter beneath it that they swoop in and have at. They look so big up close, but they are crows, not ravens.  (Crow versus raven questions, or want to know why the Corvids are so damn smart?)

Mostly, though, it’s those shoots that have my attention as I eagerly get reacquainted while at once taking care not to harm them with my rake, or feet. The annual April guessing game of mentally matching emerging spikes and knobs to images of what they will become delights me—a sort of before-and-after visualization drill for an aging brain.

But why do soon-to-be-green plants pop up other-than-green, in reddish-pink or purple (colors we typically associate with fall foliage, not earliest spring)? This last week, two species peonies strutted their rosy stuff: Paeonia ostii (a shrubby “tree” peony, above) and Paeonia mlokosewitschii (a little woodland perennial, photo top of page).

Like the Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) elsewhere in the garden (and above) and the twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla) and even soon-to-arise common bleeding heart, they are displaying anthocyanins (red or blue pigments), not chlorophyll (green). But why?  Even though I can only understand every other word if that (!), I devour scientific papers on the subject, like this one, or this one. They say things like this:

“Young leaves of many plants are transiently red because of the accumulation of anthocyanins, with the redness disappearing as leaves mature. Among the many hypothetical functions of foliar anthocyanins, two are tested in this field study: the sunscreen photoprotective function against excess visible light and the handicap signal against herbivory.”

And that the pigments…

“… may either make red leaves less discernible to some insect herbivores or make insect herbivores more discernible to predators, or both. Moreover, excessive herbivory may be additionally discouraged by the high phenolic concentrations in red leaves.”

My oversimplified layperson translation: Adopting this temporary non-green coloration prevents sunburn and makes the tender shoots less palatable to animals or insects, since the compounds in them taste less good than green stuff. (It may also be true that the color is less visible to certain insects that might otherwise nibble on such succulence.)

I figure at this uphill-battle stage in the unfolding season, with the weather conspiring against my being ready for the kickoff May 5 Open Day festivities, I’ll take whatever tiny offerings of beauty and fascination nature has to offer. It would be easier to go inside and get the crackers and cheese and the remote, and watch some British show or other, but no: Onward I shall go, fueled as ever by curiosity.

P.S.–Did I mention that it’s not just Cleanup Season, but Tick Season around here? (Well, actually it’s Tick Season except when there is snow cover, I suspect.) That’s one who bit me briefly the other day, above, captured in a canning jar just in case a reaction occurs. More about the latest backyard tick research, and the whole tick-borne disease equation. Know thy enemy!

  • Miss the previous weeks of my reports from the cleanup front? The first two are at this link.
  1. Joan Kutcher says:

    Thanks for this great article, Margaret. I never thought to ask myself why so many shoots are pink rather than green. But as for the Phoebes (aka Poopy-pants at my house), they’re not welcome on my porch. I guess I could spread newspaper under their nest to catch all the mess, but c’mon, there must be other less visible places around the house and barn for them to set up their squat.

    1. margaret says:

      They are a little messy, Joan, but I guess I just turn a blind eye. I just love getting to watch those little faces poking up from the nest up close!

  2. Ann M. says:

    Thank you! Just as much science as I can understand but really interesting! I’m so glad you asked the question.

  3. Pam Greenwood says:

    Hello — I so enjoy your articles. Regarding spring cleanup, you might be interested in new research showing that native bees overwinter in left litter and also rest there during the cold nights of early spring. The Xerces society suggests we leave that litter….

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Pam. Yes, very good advice. I wrote about that kind of recommendation in a story about fall cleanup in fact — how we want to wait till 5 days or a week of 50F+ tempes happen before raking stuff up to avoid disturbing oevrwintering places and so on in this article. I do the beds where there are a lot of early arising cultivated plants now, and leave the perimeter of the property and bigger, looser areas untouched until early May or later (and always leave large areas of ungroomed stuff, too).

  4. Andrea says:

    thanks. for the link to the ‘nervous breakdown’ post ! after crawling and hauling debris, and probably prematurely planting witch-hazel, hellebores, potted primulas, our joints said ‘hooray, another day of sleety ice and brit tv’, coffee and a crossword . cheering for ice was a nervous breakdown. we take it back.

    we had the bug book out a 7 AM. it was our best holiday gift. better than the bourbon coated coffee beans.

  5. Hedy Galow says:

    In the picture of your house at the top, there is a lovely tree (evergreen) on the Right side that looks like a golden evergreen. I have been reading about ‘Golden Duke’ or ‘Golden Duchess’ in Garden Gate magazine. It is put out by Monrovia but I can not find it here in NJ. Maybe it does not do well here? Have you heard of it or seen it? The tree on the right side of your house looks just like it.
    Love reading all your posts.

  6. Krystal says:

    My bleeding heart plant came up with fully formed flowers attached to the emerging foliage this year. It looked quite bizarre. Our spring has been weird (warm, dry March, and wet cool April) so maybe it got confused?

  7. Anna says:

    Thank you for this blog. I also am in upstate NY, and have similar weather. We lost my children’s favorite tree (The Abarella Soup Tree) in the Terrible Wind Storm. I am hopeful (as gardeners, we must always remain hopeful, right?) for spring- but oy, the wait! And the plants are SO confused…
    Thank you also for the information about leaves starting out not-green. I was just staring at some purple shoots, thinking: “those look familiar, but what the heck are they?!?”

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