The Breath of Spring: Emergence of Leafing

As part of our Cycles of Gaia ecological calendar project, over the next year, we’re sharing an insight each month on one of the member species of the calendar, or some other ecological element of the Northeast Coastal Zone (southern New England) drawn out by the calendar. This month, as spring sets in, we focus on the emergence of leaves after the sparse winter.

April as portrayed by the Cycles of Gaia Ecological Calendar.

In April, as the weather warms, nature undergoes a noticeable change. The bare branches of winter start showing signs of life, hinting at the arrival of spring. This is the time when leaves begin to emerge, bringing a burst of greenery that quite literally breathes vitality into the world.

Sugar Maple in mid-spring. (Image from Katja Schulz via Wikipedia)

In the fall, most plants shed their leaves in preparation for the winter cold, which could freeze their leaves (and damage their branches through snow and ice accumulation) if they were not shed.1 Having adapted to the low temperatures of winter, as the days begin to warm in spring, plants experience this change in temperature and, sensing they are no longer at risk of freezing, start to grow leaves again. In February, we discussed the process of sap-making in maple trees. With winter now over, maple trees are done producing sap (which works as a sort of antifreeze) and begin unfurling new leaves. Below, see a sugar maple in all its wondrous, springly greenery.

Maple leaves, as well as those of other plants leafing at this time of the year, have pores that absorb carbon dioxide from the air, which they use in the photosynthesis process to grow and thrive. Through plants’ collective participation in photosynthesis, they create a sort of “breathing” effect in Earth’s atmosphere.

Photosynthesis is actually a more complicated process than most folks realize…. (Image from Knowable Magazine via Flickr)

This timelapse by NASA shows “the seasonal cycle of vegetation and the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.” With the shedding of leaves in the northern hemisphere’s autumn months comes an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide. In the springtime, particularly in April, there is an influx of leafing and vegetation, sucking the carbon dioxide out of the air, and gradually growing towards its vegetative peak in the summer.

Observing one breath cycle of Gaia. (NASA)

What a marvel it is, that nature is so resilient to its seasonal adversaries, and how effectively it organizes itself to survive. As we observe the unfolding of leaves and the breath of new growth this month, let this serve as a reminder of the balance of the ecosystem of which we’re part—so complex and refined—and inspire us to connect with it on a deeper level.


1) The big exception, of course, being evergreens, which have evolved to keep their leaves (needles) throughout the winter. Included in the calendar are white pine, Eastern redcedar, and Hemlock.

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