By: Alicia Daniel
The Woods are Springing Into Life
In early May, the rocky woods in Burlington begin to fill with spring ephemeral wildflowers. Before the trees leaf out deeply shading the forest floor, flowers including Hepatica, Bloodroot, and Dutchman’s Britches tap into the energy in their bulbs and shower color across the faded mat of brown leaves. Now is the time to catch this spring extravaganza. Head out in the rocky woods near home with a trusty Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide in hand. Some of the best places to visit are the slopes below the tower at Ethan Allen Park, the woods between the parade grounds and the lake at Rock Point, and rocky outcrops in Arms Park.
These earliest of flowers are perennials that spend 10 months underground. These spring ephemerals take up to six years to develop from seeds to flowering plants. And many of them rely on ants to disperse their seeds. So they colonize new ground at an ant-like pace. Since it takes such a long time for them to take hold in a landscape, it is never a good idea to pick them. Or walk on them or bike over them, so please stay on the trails.
Besides adding freshness and beauty to the spring woods, spring wildflower provide an early source of food for wildlife and the blossoms offer nectar and pollen to bees and a time when few other flowers are in bloom. Some of the spring ephemerals are starting to bloom already. Here are a few to watch for in Burlington’s rocky parks.
Hepatica, along with bloodroot, is one of the earliest and most fleeting of our flowers. Unless your timing is just right, you will arrive on the scene to find the petals strewn like confetti near the base of the plants and you will know that the party is over for the year. Hepatica looks like a demure African violet, with its deep purples, lavenders, and whites and soft, fuzzy three lobed leaves. Hepatica is one of the only flowering plants with variable petals (actually, sepals) numbering from 6 to 20.
Most flowers are pollinated by some mix of wind, birds, insects, butterflies or bees. However, Dutchman’s Breeches are only pollinated by just one very special royal visitor: a bumblebee queen. Insects have a special long hairy tongue (called a proboscis) that they use like a straw to bring nectar from flowers into their mouth. Only queen bumblebees have a proboscis long enough to reach the nectar deep inside the flower; the tongues of honeybees and other insects are too short.
When a bumblebee drinks the nectar of this flower, it also pollinates the flower with its head and front legswhich cause the flower to produce a seed. Only bumblebees have legs strong enough to pull apart the petals of the Dutchman’s Breeches and get inside the pants. Butterflies and other insects don’t have legs that are strong enough.
Some spring flowers can tell us about the underground landscape. According to plant ecologist Elizabeth Thompson Wild Ginger and Canada Violet indicate that the soil is rich (i.e. has a pH closer to neutral.) That is why they thrive on the calcium rich outcrops in our city parks. But growing on rocky terrain makes them more vulnerable to foot and bike traffic. There are historical reports of Hepatica growing on the rock summits of Ethan Allen Park, but those populations are gone today. Spring wildflowers could return to historic locations with careful stewardship by all of us.
All of the spring flowers will be gone by late May. They are rushing to capture the energy of the sun before the trees leaf out. Robert Frost’s poem Spring Pools describes so beautifully this dance between leaf out and flower bloom:
The trees that have it in their pent-up buds
To darken nature and be summer woods—
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only yesterday.
By the way, the flowery waters “from snow that melted only yesterday” Robert Frost refers to in Spring Pools are vernal pools. But that is a fascinating story for another time.
Join BPRW Field Naturalist Alicia Daniel for a Woodland Wildflower walk on May 14th at 10:00 am at Ethan Allen Park and meet the Master Naturalists.