It's mid-February, and the days continue to get longer. We are near 10 1/2 hours of daylight. While the sunsets move toward 6 p.m., rising approaches 7 a.m. Though often cold, February can also bring temperatures in the 40-degree range.
Birds (and squirrels) arrive earlier at the feeders now and during my dawn walk, I hear more sounds from crow, raven and woodpecker drummings. It seems like there are more crows here each day lately. Also, besides these, tracks of deer, coyotes and foxes abound along the road and hare are more active in the woods.
As we ease into late winter, we are not only entering the time of changes — this is also the time of the greatest snowpack. Typically, late February and early March is when we have the deepest snow on the ground. And though February does not usually give us much snow, not much has melted either.
This winter has not been a particularly snowy winter, but the National Weather Service has recorded a seasonal total of about 60 inches — close to normal. We have had a continuous snow cover for nearly 100 days.
I was looking at this snowpack recently as I walked along the road. The depth was about 1 foot and that was enough to cover the myriad wildflowers that bloomed here in the open last summer. At that time, the roadsides flourished with a diversity of colors from daisies, black-eyed Susans, trefoils and clovers — all presently buried under this snow.
But as I passed by, I noted that several of the taller plants could still be seen: goldenrods, asters, sunflowers and the ubiquitous tansies. They were so common in late summer and can still be seen here now. These plants are holding seeds to be dispersed by winds or birds. Nearly all are perennial, with roots still alive underground, they will be in this location again next summer.
But there is one biannual among them. The tall mullein that bloomed here last summer has a life of two years.
Reaching above the snowpack, mulleins may be 5 feet tall. Not only do they have an impressive height, they are also robust. With a stem thick and tough, the plant not only stands above the snow, it seems to be also as solid as wood.
During its flowering time in summer — usually coming to bloom in early July — they are hard to not notice. Besides rising above the other flora, they also are full of large leaves. Wide and long, the leaves are coated with a furry growth, giving a soft coating. (One of the other names for this flower is velvet-leaf, and I have heard it called “calf’s tongue.")
Leaves are mostly low on the plant, but higher on the stem are numerous flowers. Ironically, such a tall and robust growth has tiny yellow flowers — easy to overlook even when we see this roadside plant.
This flowering phase is the end of its second year. Seeds are formed and the plant fades in fall. Mature seeds drop in these open sites along roads. Growing during its first year, the plant stays low and spreads its leaves forming what is called a rosette, and spends the winter in this stage. Doing some digging under the snow here, I was able to locate a rosette with leaves that were still largely green as it prepared for the coming spring.
In the snowpack of mid-February, we can see the mullein of last summer and the one preparing for next summer.