We were staying with our friends in Hot Springs Village, and spent one day driving the Forest Service roads north of the Village in the Winona WMA. In summer it's a terrific place to find uncommon insects, but this day in mid-winter it was cold and darkly overcast, and nothing was stirring, save for numerous flocks of juncos. We decided to spend most of the day driving roads new to us, noting promising looking locations we might visit again later in the year when things warmed up. Last thing in the day we stopped at Iron Springs Campground on Highway 7. A stream runs through it, and sometimes even on cold days there will be some signs of life under water. We walked along the edge of the stream in an area where during past summers we had seen darters courting, the tiny male sidling up to the female and suddenly flaring his huge brightly colored dorsal fin. But today not a fish in sight, no aquatic beetle trundling along the bottom, nothing.
But then we saw something we would normally have missed. In the past we had gone up to the water's edge to look in, but paid no attention to the shrubby vegetation we were walking through. Today, all the leaves were gone, and the bare sticks of the tall bushes around us revealed that they were in full bloom.
First we saw the alders, which of course would be expected here along the streamside, but what we had now were the tiny red female flowers, and then, hanging below them, the long dangling catkins of the male flowers. (The name "catkin," I just learned, comes from their resemblance to a cat's tail.)
The other thing that was there we didn't see for a few moments. Then we noticed a small flower, and it was as if a light turned on and we saw the bush in front of us was in full bloom, covered with small flowers, and then we saw that, except for the few alders which were on the edge of the water, all the bushes around us with their waxy aromatic space-alien flowers were this other thing: It was Vernal Witch-hazel. Here is a picture of it showing some flowers, and some buds not yet unfurled.
In this second picture you can see a seed pod from last summer. When these pods snap open, they can hurl a seed up to thirty feet. This area here had dozens of large bushes. At the right moment in summer it must have been like a war zone.
Along with these early blooming flowers, there was also the promise of a flower that wouldn't be out until summer. At our feet we could see the leaves of Cranefly Orchids (one turned over to show the purple underside). Months from now, when these leaves are long gone, the tiny insect-like flower will appear. It is so inconspicuous without the leaves to point it out, that some people put a little stake by the leaf so they will be able to locate the flower later.
Have you noticed how often very early leaves are purple underneath? One theory I have heard is that the purple is an indication of a lot of sugar in the leaf, which apparently can act as an antifreeze.