The How and Why Library/Trees/Section I
I. Spring: "Rockaby Babies" 
Where do you look for flowers in the Spring, and when? Why, on the ground, of course, and in late April or early May.
The Indian boy looked up, in March. He saw flowers much earlier than you do. The air is warmer than the ground in the early Spring. Before the snow goes off the red maple lights the edges of the woods and the banks of streams with its blood-red blossoms. Against the cold, gray-blue sky of March the maples look redder than they really are. The flowers are so small, and so crumpled and bunched in little tufts on the sides of twigs, that you may think them only the first leaves. Frost nips a good many of them. Entire clusters fall to the ground, sometimes on the snow. You can easily find and study them.
You will find a number of tiny blossoms snuggled together, inside a raincoat of varnished brown scales lined with wool. The separate flowers are fairy cups, some with pollen pockets on little hairs, like clappers in bells, and others with eager arms or plumes stretched out asking for pollen. It takes both kinds of flowers to make the winged seed of the maple, and they both grow on the same tree. The bees get their first sweet breakfasts of the year from the ruby honey cups of the red maple.
A week or two later, the Indian boy looked for the flowers of the rock or sugar maple. They are not so easy to see, from the ground, for flowers and leaves come together, and both are a pale yellowish green. The flowers are not bunched, and each cup hangs by a hair-like thread. The whole tree has a feathery, spring-like look that tells everyone who knows anything at all that the sweet sap is running up. The tree pumps up thirty or forty gallons of water in flowering time. The silver maple flowers early, too. Its blossoms are in thick short tufts of greenish white, much the color of the leaves. The flowers of all the maples grow on the sides of the twigs. The leaf-buds are at the ends.
The snow is still trickling away in little icy streams when the first willow pussies come out for an airing. You will not find them on the big willow trees, but on bundles of knobby switches of willow shrubs that grow with their little webby root feet in the water. The bark is a brownish-green satin, with gummy, scale-covered buds set at regular spaces along the slender, leafless stems.
These scales open, and furry gray noses poke out to take note of the weather. If the sun is shining, the pussies slip right out and sit, as if with toes and tails under them, like so many maltese kittens. You like to rub the silken pussies on your cheek, and you almost expect to hear them purr. But in a few days they swell and stretch and bristle, like kittens with their backs up about something, until every gray hair shows a grain of yellow pollen under it. Shake a twig and see the gold dust fly!
The big willow trees know better than to bloom so early, when Jack Frost nips foolish pussies. When the April sun is quite warm, the black willow takes the brown water-proof caps from its flower buds, and pushes out some catkin tails as scaly as pine cones. Each row of scales is dropped over the next lower one as neatly as the shingles on a church spire. They have no fur, for nobody needs fur in April. Under the scales are seed bottles with eggs in them, but no yellow pollen to feed them. Somewhere nearby, there is sure to be another black willow tree with no eggs, but with pollen catkins as yellow as gold. The bees visit both trees for honey, and so carry pollen to the eggs. The yellow tassels fall very soon, but the scaly ones stay on the trees awhile. By and by the seed babies under the scales get so big and downy that they tumble out of the nests and fly away.
All the catkin bearing trees—the willows, alders, birches and poplars, make these feathered seeds. In April and May, the woods are full of flying white flakes. One poplar is called the cottonwood because of the snow storm of downy seeds it sets loose. The alders are mostly shrubs, growing with the willows along the waterways. Their scaly, worm-like catkins, that you can see in winter, swell into long feathery tassels of purple and gold. On the same bushes are little erect cone-catkins that bear the seeds. The birches like drier soil. You know these white-barked wood fairies, don't you? The birches are shy, and so are their blossoms. You have to lift the thin scales of their catkins to find the thinner scales under them, and the hidden pollen. The tassel grows feathery, and the downywood sprites of seeds seem to ripen and vanish in a day. The birds use the cottonwood and willow seeds to line their nests with down.
A great many trees flower in April, when the wild flowers in the ground are just poking little green cones through the warm blanket of last year's leaves. The pollen-making blossoms of the elms are little chimes of bells, yellowish or reddish green and, in some kinds, greenish purple. They have so many sturdy little yellow-tipped clappers that you almost expect to hear them ring. In the elm, as in nearly all forest trees, it takes two kinds of flowers, working together, to make seeds. So some of the blossoms of the elms have no clappers, but hairy arms that reach for pollen food. The wind brings it from other trees.
The elm seed is a round, notched and fringed and double-walled green scale, with the seed between two layers, just like the powder in a toy pistol cap. The seed hang in bunches, by inch-long hairs, until the wind tears them loose and scatters them. At the same time in May, the red maple drops its two-winged seeds. They look very much like the thumb screws that you use to tighten bolts, only, of course, they are thin and green.
Oak trees also have two kinds of flowers. One kind is a dwarf catkin or cone, with several double pockets full of gold-dust. The egg flower is a tiny pink knob. It sits away out on the end of the twig in a scaly cup, often snuggled up to a sister or two, like a little bump on a log. Its pink mouth is as wide open as a baby robin's when crying for worms. It wants that pollen! You see, it is a baby acorn. When it gets the pollen it swallows the food, shuts its mouth tight, turns green, and just sits there and grows all summer.
The acorn is really a kind of nut. And you might say that all of our forest nuts are made in much the same way as acorns. The chestnut seed-cone grows on the same twig as the pollen-catkin. As there are to be three nuts in one bur, it has three mouths to be fed with pollen, all set in one prickly cup.
The black walnut doesn't bloom until May. It's catkin has forty pockets of gold-dust, each one a sort of treasure shelf under a green scale. But the nut blossom is no bigger than a grain of wheat. You have to look sharp to find it. Two or three of them often grow together, on the tip of the branch, after the leaves come out. Small as they are, each has two mouths open for pollen. Why two, for one nut? Crack a walnut, a hickory nut, an English walnut or a pecan. These nuts are in two, fat, wrinkled leaves, with a woodypartition between them. But they are joined across the middle like Siamese twins.
You can make a very close guess as to what the fruit of many trees will look like by studying the blossoms that hold the little eggs. You know the sweet, three-cornered little nuts of the beech tree, don't you? The squirrels know them. Three nuts are fitted together in the husk, so, in the egg blossom, which is just a tiny grain, there are three little, three-cornered mouths to be fed. The pollen blossom is a globe-shaped bell, with a dozen powder-tipped threads.
What would you think the blossom of the wild grape should look like? A many-branched cluster of flowers, for one thing. The flowers have five petals and five pollen threads, and a many-celled egg cup for the many seeds of the grape. But the flower petals do not flare open. They are almost closed into little grape shaped globes around the seed-making parts. The flower stalk, with ever so many branches and separate flowers on it, may be only an inch or two long, but it is a whole baby bunch of grapes.
Do you notice that the grape has both of its flowers, the seed cup and the pollen threads, set in one blossom? This is the first one of the kind we have found. The catkin bearers, the maples, the elms and all the nut trees have two kinds of flowers. One is a pollen maker that falls as soon as the yellow food is scattered. The other is an egg blossom that is fed, and stays on the tree awhile to ripen the seeds. In the grape, the two flowers are brought together, and set in a five-petaled cup, or ball.
The same is true of the wild crabapple and hawthorn trees of the woods. Plants with these united flowers are called crown-bearers. They are of a higher order than those that have to make two kinds of blossoms to grow seed. The crabapple blossom is so large that you can find out just how it is put together. The stem ends of all the parts are packed in a solid green cup that swells out on the end of the stalk. In that cup are little eggs in five nests. Growing up from the nests are five, hollow, white columns with moist, spongy buttons on top. Around these columns is circle after circle of yellow-tipped pollen threads, as many as thirty of them. And outside of these is the rosette of five pink petals, held up by the five green sepal scales, or flaring lips of the egg cup.
Bees brush the yellow pollen onto the white columns, and the grains of gold-dust send hair-like roots down to the little seed eggs.Then the petals fall, the seed cup closes and swells, the sepals dry into five little brown scales at the flower end. The apple grows big and juicy, and ripens brown seeds in five satin-horn lined nests in the heart.
The crown-bearers do not use their own pollen, but exchange it with flowers on other trees of the same kind. Such a flutter of silken, scented petticoats; such a buzzing of bees and hovering of butterflies as goes on in those huge bouquets of pink and white! Beside what we call the wild fruit trees—all trees and low plants, too, bear fruits, for fruits are seeds, you know—there are the honey locusts, the horse chestnut and buckeye trees, and many crown-flowering shrubs, in American forests.
The honey locusts hang out long clusters of pink butterfly blossoms, like nosegays of little sweet peas. The honey bees go frantic with delight over them. In June, the horse chestnut gives its second surprise party of the year. Don't miss that for anything. You can find these handsome trees in lawns, parks and along village streets.
The swollen cone of the horse chestnut flower bud is in the heart of a cluster of five-fingered leaves, often a foot long and broad. The big white blossoms are on erect, many-branched spikes, so they form a giant bouquet. Each blossom is a fluttery, ruflfly cup, penciled and dotted with purple and yellow. They are deep honey pots, into which bees tumble, head first, jostling the hanging pollen pockets and bumping into seed column tips. When the petals fall in a little snow storm, the seed grow in husks, into dark brown nuts, much like big, flattened acorns. The horse chestnut is a foreign cousin of the American buckeye tree. The Ohio buckeye that gives its name to the state, has clusters of smaller greenish flowers, and the sweet buckeye long, narrow, yellow flowers in green cups.
Under the lowest limbs of the tall forest trees are the flowering shrubs. The wild briar berries have clusters of white rose-like blossoms. There are bouquets of white-flowered dogwoods, pink sprays of red-bud, and yellow torches of the spice bush. The elder shrubs have showy parasols of tiny white blossoms, and the laurel makes banks and drifts of pink snow on rough hillsides.
This is the forest in flower, as the Indian boy knew it. Do you wonder that he loved it? If you learn to know it and love it as he did, it will call you out every day from March to June.