Lost forests; the wonders of springtime

Kai Hagen

April 4, 2003

Since the beginning of winter, just before Christmas, Maryland and the rest of the northern hemisphere has been tilting back toward the sun. You wouldn't know it by the weather, of course, as global winds and currents shift slowly, and the whole of winter comes and goes while the sun grows stronger and the days get longer.

Late snows and lingering cold delayed the inevitable arrival of spring a bit more than usual this year. Still, evidence of spring was trickling in for a while, with skunk cabbage popping up here and maple sap running there. But with the recent stretch of warm and sunny days, the trickle has become a flood of early blossoms, new green growth and bustling wildlife activity throughout Frederick County.

Springtime in our part of the world is an annual extravaganza. Breathtaking beauty is everywhere, not to be missed even by those who only glance out the window of their home or speed past it on their commute to work. Spring is certainly stunning in our yards and along our neighborhood streets and in our city parks. It's so lovely, in fact, that you might not be tempted to get out into the woods to see and hear the wonders of spring in the wild spaces of the county - a different sort of spring.

Before Europeans arrived here a few hundred years ago, what is now Frederick County was almost entirely cloaked by an impressive climax forest dominated by immense chestnut trees, along with huge hemlock and tulip trees, and a rich mixture of beech, oaks, maples, hickories, and so many others, all towering over an understory of dogwoods, redbud, blue beech, ironwood, spicebush, wild azalea, mountain laurel and a stunning variety of woodland wildflowers. The forest was also home to a remarkable diversity of creatures.

For ages, the only sort of spring in Frederick County was spring in the forest.

Incredibly, not a single small patch of the original forest survived the timber cutting and early farms that followed the first wave of explorers and trappers, not even on the steepest slope or most rocky crest. We can only lament that nobody had the foresight to preserve an example of it somewhere

Over the decades, with a combination of conscious efforts and benign neglect, many of the trees have returned to broad sweeps of the Catoctin Mountains, narrow corridors along the Monocacy and Potomac Rivers, and scattered patches throughout our agricultural landscape.

Left alone, the trees grow back quickly. But it takes a lot more time to re-create a forest...or a springtime...anything like what was here before. For all the potential it may hold, a patch of woodland with young trees is not a forest, and many or most of the pieces will be missing.

But, by now, some of our public parks and other preserves have been protected long enough to offer more than just a sense of what spring was like for millennia. And the time to experience much of the beauty of spring in the forest is April, well before the green wave sweeps up the river valleys and over the gentle ridges. A walk in the woods can be a joy any time of year, of course, but it is a special delight before the budding trees cast a summer-long shadow on the forest floor.

Waiting until the forest is green means missing out on the magic of frog music. Summer visitors to woodland ponds can count on hearing the solitary burps of big bullfrogs and green frogs. But the vernal pools and wetlands in the woods resonate with the sounds of wood frogs and spring peepers and gray tree frogs and American toads. If that doesn't sound like a treat to you, it is only because you haven't had the pleasure!

The wonders of the early spring forest also include colorful songbirds that rarely, if ever, venture beyond the forest interior. No doubt, our homes are enlivened by the sounds of cardinals and mockingbirds and other birds that have adapted to city and suburbs. But you have to walk in the woods to enjoy the sights and sounds of a scarlet tanager or wood thrush or many other arriving residents and migrants passing through.

Our sunny home gardens bloom throughout the spring and summer, but, while you can find some flowers in the woods until late autumn, the great riot of native wildflowers happens early, when the bright sun still reaches the ground. The fallen leaves of last year are pushed aside by the vigorous growth of colorful wildflowers. The rich ground is dotted with bloodroot, rue anemone, spring beauty, trout lily, sharp-lobed hepatica, large-flowered bellwort, Dutchman's breeches, Virginia bluebell, and patches of wild ginger, trillium, cutleaf toothwort, yellow violet and more.

You will see countless lovely daffodils and tulips and marigolds and roses and azaleas this spring and every spring. You can just as easily go a lifetime without hearing a chorus of spring peepers or the song of a hermit thrush, or seeing the delicate beauty of a showy orchis.

Many of the best places to find mature and rich woodlands in Frederick County are in the public lands along the Potomac and C&O Canal, in the parks on the Catoctin and South Mountain ridges, and in the privately-owned preserve at Sugarloaf Mountain.

Consider yourself encouraged to take a short drive and a long walk!

To get in touch, e-mail Kai Hagen at