A Breath of Life

Poplar bud in springSpring is in full-swing here now. In the southern reaches of Manitoba, some trees have leafed out almost fully and many of the ornamental fruit trees are in full bloom. At home around the lake, however, things are moving just a little slower. The first blush of green is only now enveloping the forest and I find it fascinating how only a few hundred kilometers can make such a difference in to the rate of renewal after winter’s chill.

As with many natural processes, day-length does play a role, but the story here is much longer and more complicated than that. In fact, the stage for each spring’s grand entrance is set the previous fall.

The shortening autumn day signals to the tree that it’s time to enter into a period of dormancy, sort of a forced vacation, where all systems shut down to preserve the tree’s tissues and protect it from freezing temperatures and water loss. Before it enters into this stasis, the tree uses the last of its growing resources to form the buds for the following year, encasing these primordial leaves in waxy scales that hold them in place until they get the go ahead to continue development.

After everything shuts down for the winter, the process shifts into a sort of time-release mechanism. Each species has it’s own mandatory vacation period, a set number of cold days it must endure before any warming will trigger the growth of new leaves. That period, however, is usually shorter than the average Canadian winter. So if we get a sudden early warming, like we did this year in March, it can trigger the start of new leaves, which can then be a death sentence if the forest is then hit with another cold snap. Alternatively, really warm autumns or warm winters can delay the onset of budding by pushing back the point at which the ‘mandatory cold period’ started. This reliance on temperature to maintain their cycle may make it very difficult for trees to adapt to the rapid changes in climate patterns we’re starting to witness.

Here in Manitoba’s boreal, however the wave of green is sweeping across the landscape as it always has this time of year. It happens so fast, that if you’re not paying attention, you can miss the in between stages and those are the best parts.

My absolute favourite time is when the Balsam Poplar’s (Populus balsamifera) buds (pictured above) begin to swell to bursting. They’re full of sticky, volatile oils that fill the air with a warm heady scent, that’s a pleasant mix of vanilla, cut fir boughs and Vicks Vaporub. I’ll never forget my first experience with a Balsam Poplar stand in full bud. It’s an amazing smell that washes through you, leaving you both calm and invigorated all at the same time.

Balsam poplar buds in oil

Soaking up the sun – Steeping balsam poplar buds in oil, the beginnings of Balm of Gilead

The healing effect may not just be limited to your sense of well-being. For centuries, Aboriginals and European immigrants alike have used poplar buds for medicinal purposes, typically warming them in some sort of fat to draw out the oils and then using the resulting salve on everything from wounds, eczema, and rashes to lining the inside of the nose to clear up airways. I learned how to tease the benefits from the bud from a woman living in the farmlands north of Swan River, Manitoba.

After steeping the buds in a good-quality oil in the sun for several days, strain off the liquid and thicken it with beeswax. The result is known as Balm of Gilead and makes a nice skin cream that smells wonderful.  Beyond it’s fragrance, the oils also contain salicin, a compound similar to aspirin that has been used as an analgesic by many cultures.

Whether it’s grounded in chemistry or not,  I still believe there is nothing better for your health and well-being than getting out an experiencing the first breath of life that is spring in the forest and surrounding yourself in its fragrant, verdant beginnings.

Coming out of the Woodwork

Spring is sort of a fickle thing around here. I was so sure we’d seen the last of the snow, then I woke up to white and howling north winds over the weekend. The only saving grace was that it didn’t last for long.

Weather isn’t a very reliable indicator of the seasons up in the north woods. I’m pretty sure the only month I haven’t seen flurries of some kind is July. However, there are plenty of other indicators of the impeding spring.

While returning birds are always a good sign, it’s when I see my first butterfly that I know we’re finally starting to thaw for the year. Usually sometime around early April, I spot one, a Mourning Cloak (Nymphalus antiopa, pictured) or an Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma), basking on a branch or the middle of a gravel road, soaking up the now warmth-giving rays.  It’s always an especially fun juxtaposition when I find one sitting on top of some snow that just refuses to melt and it makes me wonder: what is a cold-blooded insect doing up and about so soon in the spring?

The reason these butterflies can get an early start on things is because they spend the winter hibernating as adults. Actually, calling it hibernation is putting it lightly. They tuck their delicate bodies into old woodpecker holes, cracks in the tree bark or between the shingles and wall boards of old or unheated buildings and then they simply let themselves freeze. Okay, well not quite. While they do let ice invade their bodies, these butterflies are quite particular about where the crystals form, keeping them confined to the fluid on the outside of their cells so that vital systems aren’t destroyed.

As the days get longer and warmer, they literally come out of the woodwork, flitting around in the sunshine, even when there is a foot of snow on the ground. How these butterflies and other freeze-tolerant organisms know when to wake up is still a mystery. They’re basically in a state of stasis all winter, their lives set on pause, so what exactly constitutes their alarm clock is still an unknown.

Once they’re up and at it, however, there is no time to waste. Mating begins right away, with males and females fluttering around each other before settling down to business. Once the eggs are laid on suitable host plants, like willow, aspen and birch, these harbingers of spring die off, leaving their genetic legacies to the next generation. It may seem like a short life, but most of these over wintering butterflies have been alive as adults for up to 10 months, veritable ancients for their world.