Wild Ideas: Ah, spring . . . where art thou?

Enjoying the balmy spring weather? Spring has officially arrived as I’m finishing this column, on March 20, but I’m not feeling it yet. I’m looking out the window to sleet coming down, soon to be followed by perhaps more than a foot of snow as a fourth nor’easter this month blows through.

By Pam Owen
Spring in Sperryville starts with ice and snow from Winter Storm Toby

The National Weather Service describes our newest wintery disruption as “a complex evolution of fronts and surface lows.” And so March continues on its chilly track. This is the second year in a row that February has been warmer than March. And last Friday (March 16) marked the 12th consecutive day that temperatures were colder than average this month.

If our area doesn’t get to 60 by the day this column is published (March 22), it will be only the sixth time on record, the last being in 1960. We came close on Sunday (March 18), but that seems like a distant memory now, with ice coming down and the rest of the month forecast to be unseasonably cold. Several Virginia locations have already broken records for low temperature this month. In contrast, February temps soared close to 80 more than once.

I had wanted to get up to Skyline Drive this week to see how Shenandoah National Park was faring after the brutal windstorm the first nor’easter, Winter Storm Riley, brought. The park’s website has the following alert about trail conditions:

“On March 1-2, strong winds damaged or uprooted many trees in the park. Hikers and backcountry campers should look up for hanging snags above trails and potential campsites. Use caution and be prepared to turn back if you encounter trail blockages.”

I didn’t make it up to Skyline Drive for several reasons, but knowing how lean the park’s funding is, I figured it imagine it hasn’t made much progress on cleaning up trails. More likely, cleanup has been focused on clearing debris from critical areas, such as roads, campgrounds, lodges and other infrastructure. (See the sidebar for scheduled facility openings.)

Skyland was scheduled to open on March 22, but I’m betting it hasn’t because of the weather. Whenever it does open, I look forward to pairing a nice meal with a walk on the Limberlost trail. It’s a great trail to start hiking for those of us who haven’t been keeping in shape during the winter. Not only is it short and flat but it runs through a lovely forest in succession. Some early-emerging plants should be poking up through the snow.

By Pam Owen
Despite the unseasonable weather, most early-budding plants, such as this blueberry bush, should be fine.

The unseasonably cold weather has not stopped trees from releasing pollen. Those that rely on wind rather than pollinators to spread their pollen begin in late January, with junipers (including eastern red cedars), and followed by elms and poplars, with all three contributing now. By poplar, I mean trees in the genus Populus, which in Virginia includes native eastern cottonwood (P. deltoides), bigtooth aspen (P. grandidentata), and quaking aspen (P. tremuloides). Two more exotic poplars, European white poplar (P. alba) and Lombardy poplar (P. nigra var. italica), are also spewing pollen. What is often called tulip poplar (Liriodedron tupilfera, aka yellow poplar or tuliptree) is actually in the magnolia family (Magnoliaceae) and doesn’t start spreading its pollen until later in the spring.

I get email pollen alerts from one of my favorite pollen-monitoring sites, Pollen.com, which also offers users who sign up a pollen diary to track allergens throughout the year by location. The site has been reporting recently, on dry days, that the top pollen allergens (in the three genera noted above) together bring the pollen index for Rappahannock County into the “good” range, around 6 on a scale of 1 (“great”) to 12 (“horrible”).

© 2018 Pam Owen

Shenandoah National Park facilities schedule

The park’s facilities open for spring on a rolling schedule, with Skyland the first to offer food and lodging, scheduled to open today (March 22). Big Meadows Wayside opens next week (March 29), and Elk Wallow Wayside opens the following week, March 30. For those itching for a trail ride, Skyland Stables opens April 6. Big Meadows Lodge doesn’t open until May 9. Further south in the park, Lewis Mountain Cabins and Campstore should be open (barring weather issues), with Loft Mountain Wayside opening March 29.

Of the two visitor centers, Byrd opens first, on March 23, followed by Dickey Ridge, on April 6. Weather is wreaking havoc with the schedule this year. On Tuesday, the entire park was closed because of hazardous conditions. For more on facility openings and other park alerts, go to the the park’s website or call (540) 999-3500 (select option 1, then option 1).

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 313 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”