(HOST) As spring leaves and blossoms emerge in the woods, commentator Tom Slayton reflects on one of his favorite flowering shrubs.
(SLAYTON) Hobblebush is one of the most common trailside plants, familiar to woods walkers year round. It’s a scraggly, sprawling viburnum with large, roundish leaves and a half-dozen names that indicate it has long been a curse to anyone trying to bushwhack through the forest: hobblebush (it hobbles you); witch-hobble (it even hobbles witches!); tangle-legs, and so on.
It has no commercial uses and therefore should qualify only as a nuisance to human beings. But moose love it. To them, it’s food. And, especially in early spring, hobblebush is undeniably beautiful.
One of my annual spring training hikes is the stiff climb up the Long Trail, south out of Appalachian Gap, up Stark Mountain. By Memorial Day, the painted trilliums are flowering, and there are trout lillies and Canada Mayflower on the forest floor. And near the top of the mountain I usually find the delicate, waxy blossoms of Clintonia and other highforest plants.
In the lower sections of this trail, hobblebush is a major player; and, if I time my hike right, I can climb through blossoms and descend through blossoms, usually batting clouds of hungry, biting insects out of the way as I move briskly along. (Every glimpse of beauty has its price.)
Nevertheless, to climb down this steep trail in the gathering dusk, to descend through hundreds of hobblebush as they hold their white-blossoming branches out like platters of pure-white clustered flowers, surrounded by the humble shrub’s fresh-green round leaves, to feel as though the living forest were somehow offering its beauty to you, over and over again – this is to know what springtime in these mountains really means.
Fairly quickly, these clusters of white blossoms transform themselves into small green berries, which gradually ripen over summer and fall to pink, then scarlet, then black. The hobblebush leaves, so fresh and bright green in May, gradually become mottled red and purple as the year progresses into autumn.
And so they are a token of the advancing year. I watch them change and transform themselves as I walk by them, May through October. Even in winter, their branches are obvious in the snowy woods because the coming year’s nascent leaves – tiny, unprotected leathery-tan praying hands at the end of each unbrowsed branch – say “hobblebush” over and over again until the spring, when bright green leaves and white blossoms will burst forth again.
So the humble hobblebush takes me through the year – through time, if you will. And this is but one plant among thousands that speak my name, call me to the mountains and enrich me when I go there.
I continue to learn from the forests as I walk through them. They are a living storyboard. They always have something to say.
Tom Slayton is the editor of Vermont Life magazine. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.