Ask me what my favorite season is and it’s hard to say, but there is something extra special about this time of the year: not just that it’s spring, but that it’s the leaf out. Daffodils are nice and I love the trout lilies, but there is something about the sight of leaves being born on trees all across the landscape that just makes me feel alive.
In the tropics and our southern states, because the seasons are not as extreme as in the north, it is not necessary for all the plants to go dormant at the same time. While I lived in Honduras, there were two marked dry seasons and two wet seasons a year. Most plants had a season that they performed best in but there was always something that was flowering on the mountainside. Plants also dropped and replaced their leaves on a continual basis, with no need to ever let them all go at once and vice versa. But here in the north, because of our bitter winters, both woody and non-woody plants have modes to survive the harsh environment with adaptations that allow them to conserve the most energy, be it by completing their life-cycle in a single year or by over-wintering in a state of dormancy.
Each autumn, woody plants go dormant with next year’s flowers, leaves, and shoots already tucked in to hibernate along the tree’s branches in neat little buds covered in tough, waxy scales. Unless damaged, these scales protect the delicate flowers, leaves, and shoots from damage due to freezing, even if sitting under an inch of snow or the ice of freezing rain. At the end of winter, when the days begin to lengthen and temperatures rise enough to warm the earth and stir the sap, the buds begin to swell, essentially hydrating what is tucked inside. Sometime between mid-April to May new leaves emerge, glossy and tender.
A walk in the forest during the leaf out gives one the feeling that things are in flux; things are changing. The earliest flowers are up and the sun light falls upon them criss-crossed with the shadows of the tree trunks though the sun is still winter weak. Green is starting to haze in over the drab grays of the leaf-less forest though. And there, yes, miniature leaves unfurl from the buds, emerging gently, dancing along the slender branches all around.