As much as there is going on in the garden, I can’t help but write about two exciting spring events happening in the woods over on my parents’ farm.
The first interesting event actually started a few months ago. In early spring each year, as the snow melts and the ground thaws, water collects in a small depression up in the woods, creating a specialized little habitat known as a vernal pool or vernal pond.
Unlike other sorts of wetlands, vernal pools hold water for only part of the year, typically drying up at some point during the summer. Fish can’t live there, and bullfrogs usually can’t either, so it’s an ideal place for creatures such as tree frogs and salamanders to lay their eggs with minimal danger from predators.
Mom and I usually start including the pool in our daily walk around the third week of March, once we start hearing the chirping of the spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer), a species that also breeds in these habitats. Peepers are very small and very well camouflaged; I’ve looked for them often but never actually seen one, but boy are they loud! (You can hear clips of a single peeper and a peeper chorus under Vocalization on this page.) As quiet as we try to be, the peepers and other frogs know we’re coming, and all is silent by the time we reach the edge.
I so wish I knew more about what we see in there. It’s obvious that some of the things are frog eggs, and I think some might be salamander eggs, but I don’t know how to tell them apart.
Within a few weeks, we see a whole lot of tadpoles: I’d guess that there are hundreds, if not over a thousand, in this tiny pool holding just a few inches of water.
Right after they hatch, they seem to like to feed on the gelatinous material that’s around the egg masses. After that, they eat algae and leaf litter.
One thing I haven’t caught yet is the point when they start changing into adults. Some years, the pool dries up before that happens; other years, I get too busy with gardening and forget to look. I’m going to try again this year, though. There are lots of other interesting creatures there too.
In the process of trying to learn more about our vernal pool, I discovered that many states have web resources on these habitats. In Pennsylvania, we even have a registry for them, at The Pennsylvania Seasonal Pools Registry. The main Seasonal Pools page is linked to a number of pages where you can learn more about the ecology and conservation of these spaces.
Vernal pools are especially susceptible to destruction because they’re not evident year ‘round. When they’re dry, they’re barely visible, and land developers can quickly destroy them with a single pass from a bulldozer. If you know of a vernal pool, or if you’d like to see if you could find one to visit, try Googling “vernal pool” and the name of your state to see if there’s a vernal pool registry program in your area.
Now on to the second spring event: the return of the ramps. Ramps (Allium tricoccum), also know as wild leeks, are some of the first wildflowers to send up their leaves in spring. They’re pretty common in the woods in our area, and we have a couple of patches, so we figure it’s ok to nibble on a few.
Mom remembers enjoying ramps during her childhood in central Pennsylvania, when her father would bring them back from his spring fishing trips, but she didn’t tell me about how good they were to eat until last year, when I pointed them out on one of our rambles. This spring, we tried a few when they were very young, and wow, were they delicious: oniony but with a definite garlic flavor, something like garlic chives but sweeter. Those early pickings were very tender, too. A few weeks later, the white (leaf base) parts were nice and crunchy, and the leaves were a little chewier but still great.
We eat them fresh or chopped up into salads, but I understand they’re great for cooking too. There are even festivals where ramp aficionados celebrate their return, and I totally understand that passion.
At some point in May, the fun will be over for the year, when the leaves die back. Clusters of white flowers can appear in June or July (you can see them and the seedheads here). I haven’t gotten any shots of my own yet, but I know our patch has flowered in the past because I spotted some empty seedheads, so I hope to catch them this summer.
If you ever get the chance to try ramps for yourself, I heartily recommend them. It’s possible to grow them in the garden, too, if you have some shade and moist soil. Both seeds and plants are available from Prairie Moon Nursery. Try them once and you’ll know you have to have them!