Looking back over the last month or so, I realize I saw the first fragile signs of the coronavirus pandemic receding in, of all places, the grocery store. For the last year, grocery trips have been pretty stark: one person per family, and as few trips as possible. If we see a friend or acquaintance, we might nod and smile with our eyes, and then move on. But in early March I observed an extraordinary occurrence in our local grocery store – three older women, wearing masks, but shopping together, and GIGGLING! They were positively giddy, discussing what items to buy and how to cook them. Slowly I realized something… they were celebrating being fully vaccinated by cooking and enjoying a meal together. And with that realization, something very strange happened… I started to feel a bit cheerful… I might even go so far to say that I felt rather optimistic about the coming weeks and months. I feel very cautious and tentative about this nascent optimism, though, because I know how many things could still go wrong.
The very first early sign of spring approaching in New England, or maybe more properly of winter ending, is not the appearance of some type of bird or a spring flower or leaf buds, but rather the seasonal reappearance of the hoodie. When temperatures finally rise to about 30°F, winter coats and parkas are replaced by hoodies and their close relatives, the puffer vest. What felt frigid in October or November feels positively balmy in February or early March. But, like the waning coronavirus pandemic, a northern spring must be approached with caution and mistrust. People who are new to the area might take a 60°F day in early March as a sign that spring has truly arrived, but they are destined for heartbreak. Change is the best word to describe this season: what today is like is not guarantee of what tomorrow will bring, and what spring was like last year is no guarantee of what will come this year.
Spring is a drawn out and difficult time in the north. Plants that can chance losing their flowers and leaves to frost and ice may bloom and leaf out in April, but trees can’t afford to put out their leaves until the chance of a hard frost is (mostly) behind. April may bring balmy sunny days of 70 or even 80 degrees (or, equally likely, 30 or 40 degrees) but the trees stay bare until the first week of May. Even the most foolhardy plants, like crocuses and forsythia, need a few warmish (or rather not frigid) days in a row before they bloom, and so early spring is dominated with muted shades of brown: mud brown, bark brown, and the tans and green browns of brush and grass recently exposed by melting snow. Eventually subtle reds will edge the browns, as trees and plants send sugars from their roots to their flower and leaf buds, followed quickly by the surprising yellow-green of willow leaves, and shocking lemon yellows of forsythia flowers.
I have a few favorite signs of very early spring that provide surprisingly vibrant pops of life in the brown world of early spring: red osier, coltsfoot, and spring peepers. In this post I will focus on red osier, and I will give coltsfoot and spring peepers their own separate posts.
Red osier, sometimes simply called ‘red twig’, is a shrubby plant whose deep red stems stand out against the dirty white of melting snow and the brownish green of muddy grass. Red osier stems are equally red in spring, summer, fall and winter, but in the strengthening sunlight of spring, before the flower and leaf buds swell and burst open, they really stand out. While the word ‘osier’ originally comes from an old French word for willow, or for flexible willow twigs used in basket making, red osiers (Cornus sericea) are in fact not willows at all but rather members of the dogwood family, a family which includes trees such as the familiar flowering dogwoods, shrubs, as well as non-woody (‘herbaceous’) plants such as one of my favorite forest understory plants, bunchberry (Cornus canadensis….more about this and other understory plants in a future, summertime post!)
Red osier is one of the many, many plants that fly under our collective radar except for those brief moments, perhaps, when their red stems catch our eyes. They are short and brushy, with nondescript leaves similar to those of many of the other shrub species they grow near. Their small white flowers are not especially showy or eye catching, and while they are visited by many types of insect, they are not big nectar sources for ‘famous’ pollinators like honeybees or monarch butterflies Their bluish white fruits are striking, looking a bit like large pearls or beads pinned in clusters on the leafless plants of late fall. Two closely related species of dogwood, silky dogwood (Cornus amomum) and gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa), lack the intense red color of red osier stems, and while gray dogwood fruits are also white, silky dogwoods have a deep blue fruit. Many different species of wildlife eat these fruits, from birds to deer to skunks, but white fruits tempt only the most adventurous of human foragers. Red osier fruits are in fact edible, though “bitter and unpalatable…. and may cause nausea” (I have never tried them myself).
Red osier and these two relatives are native to the United States and all three can be found in the northeast, though red osier has the most northern distribution, gray dogwood is more common in the Midwest and mid-Atlantic states, and silky dogwood is found broadly from Maine to Florida and as far west as Missouri. All three grow in or at the edges of damp or swampy places. They prefer plentiful sunshine and grow well in loose or rocky soils, and so are often seen in places disturbed by human activities, such as roadsides and forest edges, as long as those soils tend to be damp or fully wet. Maybe one reason we don’t notice these plants much past early spring is because they grow in the perfect habitat for breeding mosquitos… just a thought. I used this website to find this info: https://plants.sc.egov.usda.gov/. You can search this database for any plant by scientific name or common name … give it a try!
While these shrubby dogwoods do not play a much of role in the daily lives of the current human residents of the Americas, other than for their use as ornamentals or in erosion control, Native Americans made use of this plant in many ways. Before I talk through red osier’s various uses, I’d like to point you toward this really interesting webpage, https://practicalplants.org. It is another searchable database: if you search “Cornus sericea” you will find much of the information I have here, as well as links to primary resources where this information is published (hooray for good referencing!). If you would like to find good sources to learn more about the ethnobotany of this and other native plants, please follow this link and scroll to the reference list at the bottom of the page.
As the name ‘osier’ suggests, the stems of red osier are flexible and strong, and can be woven into baskets and other containers (see this beautiful basket, made as part of a basketweaving course, and watch a video on how to make a red osier wreath). Red osier bark has the same flexible and strong qualities of the stems themselves, and its fibers can be twisted and used as rope or cordage. The striking red bark can be used as a natural dye (look here for a picture of different fibers died with the bark) though getting a true red color from it requires some tricks that perhaps we have lost (see this interesting page for more info on dyes and all other uses, with good references).
The leaves of red osier were sometimes included in “kinnikinnick”, a native American smoking mixture. Indeed, “kinnikinnick” simply means “mixture” in the Algonquin language group, but can also refer directly to any of the plants used to make the mixture, most often bearberry plant (Arctostaphylos sp.). In fact, red osier is sometimes called simply ‘kinnikinnick’ in some of the regions where it grows, but not in New England. I wondered if this blend is still something people smoke today, and the answer is a definite ‘yes’. Just do a quick Google search for “kinnikinnick smoke blend” and you will see what I mean…
Red osier berries are theoretically edible, though apparently they don’t taste very nice and can have ‘purgative’ qualities if too many are eaten, acting as a strong laxative and/or inducing vomiting. Apparently Native Americans used them more as a ‘tonic’ than as a food source, eating a few to ‘improve digestion’. Perhaps eating a few berries periodically helped remove intestinal parasites? Fresh red osier bark was also used as a purgative but loses that quality when dried. Dried bark was to treat fever, to alleviate pain, and to slow bleeding (for sources, see previous link as well as https://practicalplants.org ). I tried to find research articles on the chemical qualities of red osier bark, but failed to find anything published on the topic. A possible research direction for any budding ethnobotanists out there?
It is now late March, and the red osier stems that caught my eye just a week or so ago are starting to fade into the background as spring flowers like crocuses and daffodils begin to dominate the scene. Soon the forsythia will bloom, and all we will be able to see for a week or more will be yellow, more yellow, and even more yellow. I love forsythia, but it is certainly not subtle. I will forget about red osier, even as I walk by stands of it near home and work, though I might find myself thinking in late fall “what are all those weird white berries…” , only to notice it when its bright red stems again suddenly ‘pop’ against the whites and browns of a receding winter…