Shades of Spring
by Joshua Heston
Fleeting moments of astounding beauty. A landscape of browns and grays changed, seemingly overnight, into an artist’s palette of transcending color. The warm gust of a southern breeze. Duck fluff of white oaks, actually small blooms and tender new leaves, suddenly dapple the forest floor in tentative shade. And the valleys are kindled in a thousand shades of pink and blush, rose and white. A spring thunderstorm moves over the mountains, sheets of life cascading over rock and new leaf.
Again, the Ozarks bloom. Another season has come to life.
Shannon County, now one of the least populated counties in the Missouri Ozarks, is a respite for the city-weary. It is a place of truly rugged terrain, old Ozark families, and winding roads snaking their way over high ridges. Here, the road to Eminence is punctuated by the brilliant rose blush of redbud unassumingly filling the roadsides.
Jacks Fork River Valley as seen from a high ridge, a cloud of dogwood and redbud in a dreamlike sea of fresh new leaves. There are places and moments in the Ozarks that appear as from an idealized painting. It is a land of deep valleys and high ridges, a window where time disappears and the enchantment of the imagination hovers for just a moment beneath a fleeting springtime sun.
A log truck rumbles across Highway 19’s Missouri Highway Department Bridge No. 804, built in 1924 to cross the Current River. A robin’s egg blue sky. The dandelions are blooming. And even the sound of traffic seems to echo an earlier age: A time when families moved into this country instead of out of the hills. A melancholy snapshot brightened by the promise of the season.
Dark valleys are momentarily brightened by starburst showers of dogwood blossoms, suspended beneath silhouette branches. The dark coves and steep, rocky cliffs spring to life. Upon close inspection, the dogwood’s tender blossoms (bracts for the technical and horticulturally minded among us) inspired a touching Christian legend. The white mountain tree’s flowers form the shape of the cross, each “petal’s” tip appears pierced by a nail and stained by blood. A beautiful bit of poetry illustrating that moment when North America’s unique flora was touched by an Appalachian and Ozark faith.
The bottom lands of Fox Creek, which empties into present-day Bull Shoals Lake near Mincy, Missouri, come alive with star-like moss, reaching, striving for the sun — an ecosystem yes, but also a world of poetry and grace, life teeming with possibility yet only a hands-breadth across, framed by rock and twig.
Nearby, a fresh mountain violet (Violaceae Viola sp.) emerges from winter’s darkness, dappled by a recent rainstorm. Often considered weeds, wild violets splash tiny but vivid color across the forest floor.
Wild cherry leaves illuminated by an afternoon sun. The tree’s tiny red blossoms may be see in the upper left of the photo. Disliked by farmers — the leaves and berries can be dangerous to cattle — the wild (or black) cherry makes a popular fruit for birds. And in late summer, the tiny, almost coffee-like flavored berries can be gathered for a dark, intensely flavorful jelly. Springtime blossoms waft an apple-like scent onto the warm, afternoon breeze.
Stark, pristine tulips in white and cream yellow bring images of purity and innocence to mind in the evening chill of early spring, seen here blooming against the front steps of Parch Corn Holler’s Smyrna Baptist Church (near Ozark, Missouri, and the Finley River).
Inside the church, fresh branches, gathered from an old, old crabapple tree on the Wills Homestead, grace the sanctuary. The beauty of the apple blossoms is accentuated by the glass vase, the water acting as a magnifying glass, shaping and intensifying the blooms while capturing a lens flare in the afternoon light.
Shades of Spring Part II
A picture of hope and innocence, pussy willow blossoms (Salix discolor) fill the air with an intoxicating scent. Bees hum around the willowy branches. Though not common in the lower Ozark region, the species is simply too beautiful not to include, especially when illumined by a heavenly evening sun.
The exquisite lilac — which blossoms with a unique and uniquely exquisite scent equal to its clusters of lavender blooms — sports the unlikely name of Syringa vulgaris. Name not-withstanding, there is nothing vulgar about this non-native yet deeply historic species. Originating in Persia, the lilac was introduced to England centuries ago. Lilac rootstocks were first sent to the American Colonies from Europe in the low-riding hulls of 18th century sailing ships.
Scarlet backs bedecked in black spots, the colors of the tiny ladybug (Coccinella magnifica) are a harbinger of mid-spring and a sign of good luck. Even better, ladybugs consume millions of damaging aphids every year. These days, a true ladybug is an especially appreciated find as more and more invasive “harlequin” ladybirds (Harmonia axyridis) make their way throughout North America. The difference? Native ladybugs tend not to swarm, are small in size, and of a distinctive scarlet-tangerine hue. The invasive species? Much larger, pumpkin-colored and with a nasty habit of swarming in clouds.
Oft-maligned Taraxacum officinale was brought from Europe during our Colonial era, planted as a valuable medicinal plant and good source of nutrition (the young leaves are edible as fresh greens). Today, Americans spend millions on killing off dandelions, often ignoring the true beauty of these not-surprisingly hardy plants. The blossoms, upon close inspection, show a star-bust like intricacy similar to the showiest of well-bred chrysanthemums.
Throughout the mountains, indeed throughout the temperate climates of North America, rural folks hurry into the wilds as soon as soil temperatures begin to rise, searching for the often elusive moral mushroom species. Valued for their unique flavor, particularly when dredged in flour and fried in bacon grease, morels can hide even better than a tom turkey in huntin’ season. Some folks swear this particular fungi can even sneak off when it hears approaching footsteps. This photo of three morels is highlighted by the bright colors of the Creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea), a non-native member of the mint family.
The jewel-like columbine, a native flower species, appears like fairy lanterns in the late-April or early-May garden, bringing to mind old folklore stories or the lyrics of Shakespeare himself —
“Over hill, over dale, through bush, through brier, over park, over pale, through flood, through fire, I do wander everywhere.
“Swifter than the moon’s sphere; and I serve the fairy queen, to dew her orbs upon the green. The cowlips tall her pensioners be: In their gold coats spots you see; those be rubies, fairy favours, in those freckles live their savours;
“I must go seek some dewdrops here and hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear. Farewell, thou lob of spirits; I’ll be gone; Our queen and all our elves come here anon.”
— A Midsummer Night’s Dream
A flurry of lilac blossoms, this time back-clothed in a penetrating green, is illuminated by a dying sun.
Mysterious denizen of the sun-shaded forest floor, Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) stands tall, its unique form calling to mind a preacher in his pulpit. In fact, Arisaema triphyllum is known by many names, not the least of which is “Indian Turnip.” Also called “Wake Robin,” a name which the species must share with similarly leaved Trillium sp., Jack in the Pulpit was once prized for its medicinal properties. Today, it is a beautiful oddity of the springtime forest.
Blue and white, the under story mountain dogwood’s firework-like display of color is punctuated by black branches tracing outlines against a truly brilliant blue springtime sky. A high pressure front has brought clear skies to the Ozarks.
On rocky mountain slopes of the Ozark hills, protected by heavy leaf litter and guarded by massive old yellow pines, the delicate fire pinks bloom (Silene virginica). Thriving in the uniquely low-moisture environments of rocky hillsides, the tiny flowers splash a vivid orange-scarlet across an otherwise brown landscape.
Photography credits —
ALL PHOTO CREDITS: JOSH HESTON. ALL PHOTO CREDITS: J. HESTON. PLATES 1, 22: COMPTON RIDGE, TANEY COUNTY, MISSOURI, MAY 3, 2008. PLATES 2, 3: RURAL SHANNON COUNTY, APRIL 7, 2010. PLATE 4: RURAL SHANNON COUNTY, APRIL 9, 2010. PLATE 5, 7: DRURY-MINCY CONSERVATION AREA, TANEY COUNTY, APRIL 10, 2009. PLATE 6: DRURY-MINCY CONSERVATION AREA, TANEY COUNTY, APRIL 11, 2009 PLATES 8, 9, 10: PARCH CORN HOLLER, CHRISTIAN COUNTY, MISSOURI, APRIL 11, 2010. PLATE 11: STATEOFTHEOZARKS ARCHIVE, APRIL 10, 2011. PLATE 12: HOLLISTER, MISSOURI, APRIL 15, 2009. PLATE 13: STATEOFTHEOZARKS ARCHIVE, MAY 12, 2009. PLATES 14, 16: STATEOFTHEOZARKS ARCHIVE, APRIL 30, 2011. PLATE 17: STATEOFTHEOZARKS ARCHIVE, MAY 12, 2009. PLATE 18: STATEOFTHEOZARKS ARCHIVE, MAY 8, 2009. PLATE 19: STATEOFTHEOZARKS ARCHIVE, MAY 9, 2009. PLATES 20, 21: DRURY-MINCY CONSERVATION AREA, TANEY COUNTY, APRIL 15, 2009. APRIL 23, 2014