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.