The seasons announce their arrival in distinctive ways. Spring, I think, for all the agreeable things it represents to us, can be a bit disingenuous, with a propensity for fits and starts. Unlike fall, which comes from the top down, spring comes from the bottom up. We can get a glimpse of that as early as January, when a few warm days can set the sugar maple sap to running, and in February, when the first inch or two of day lilies have been known to make a tentative reconnaissance above ground. By March we expect to see open water and at least a hint of green, but, alas, that was not the case this year.
When the calendar said April, I started watching for coltsfoot. It’s one of the first, if not the first, wildflowers to make a post-winter appearance, and the sight of those little yellow blossoms amongst the snow and side-of-the-road grit makes me feel like maybe I can finally release the breath I’ve been holding since about October. Coltsfoot’s leaves are thought to resemble the cross section of a colt’s foot—thus the common name. The proper name is Tussilago farfara. It belongs in the Asteraceae family and is the only species in the Tussilago genus. It is considered invasive in some areas, but honeybees like it, and there are moth and butterfly larvae that feed on the leaves. Coltsfoot has had traditional medicinal uses, but more recent research has shown it to also have pyrrolizidine alkaloids, substances that may affect the liver adversely.
Following not far behind coltsfoot are the violets. Viola is a genus of flowering plant in the Violaceae violet family. I saw a few of the familiar heart-shaped leaves peaking out of dried debris on the forest floor the same day I saw my first coltsfoot. The common blue violet is Viola sororia; there are approximately 600 other species in this genus. The variations on the violet’s color scheme are numerous, including yellow and white, and what’s not to love about all of them? This hardy flower also has medicinal uses, and is an edible treat for humans and moth larvae. And while only one species of violet, the Viola odorata, is used as a source for scents, violets overall are said to have a “flirty” scent, meaning the fragrance comes and goes. That is due to a component in the plant called an ionone, which will temporarily render our noses unable to detect the violet’s aroma. How clever!