By Jackie Burns
Ah Spring. The days get longer. The birds sing sweetly. And the woodlands come alive with color as wildflowers bloom.
You probably know that woodland wildflowers sprout and grow early, before the leaves come out on the trees, while sunlight is still able to reach the forest floor. Different areas will have different displays. Broad flat leaves gather up as much sunlight as possible, feeding the roots: look for ramps, trillium and jack-in-the-pulpit under the trees. The finely divided leaves of squirrel corn, dutchman’s britches and bleeding heart may be found near a woodland stream. Where mayapple leaves are in pairs, is there a flower or bud below them?
Spring beauty is abundant in the woods. Seems like violets and bluets are along edges everywhere. And that delicate blue beauty in your yard may be speedwell. Some flowers are on the forest floor where a pollinator could just walk into them, like wild ginger. Its purply-brown color blends so well with the forest floor that you won’t see them unless you look carefully. There are many, many more. Perhaps I’ll write more about them next spring.
Wildflowers are fun to find and enjoy. But why do they grow? What role do they have in the ecosystem? Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) tells us that when plants grow where they are native, they tend to “require less water and fertilizer, are less prone to disease and are more tolerant of pests.” Pollinators needing a boost after a winter without nectar can get it from these early bloomers. Herbivores and omnivores like us benefit from grazing on these early sprouts, eating some of their leaves, flowers and root tubers.
Even ants get involved. Many wildflowers grow a fatty deposit on their seed coat to feed the ants. Ants carry these seeds to their home, eat the fatty deposit or feed it to their young, then discard the seed with their ‘trash’. This disperses the seeds, and adds fertilizer, helping the next generation of the plant to become successful. It is a symbiotic, i.e. mutually beneficial, relationship.
Tree roots help stabilize the soils, reducing erosion. The roots of wildflowers can mat with these tree roots, adding to their efficiency in reducing erosion. This improves the health of the soil, and of the nearby waterways.
Next year why not enjoy the wonders of early spring in the mountains with others. Each year, usually on Mother’s Day weekend, folks gather at Blackwater Falls State Park for a “Wildflower Pilgrimage.” We just had the 57thannual pilgrimage, so next year will be the 58th. The outings are all day affairs, which allows us to go far and wide.
Germany Valley, Cranesville Swamp and Spruce Knob are all within reach. To accommodate people of varying abilities, some trips don’t involve much walking, while others hike all day. If you are new to this, there is a wildflower ID workshop to help you out. This event attracts some of the best botanists in our region, and some of the best birders to serve as leaders, and they are all volunteers! Each walk has at least one botanist and one birder as leaders. This event is co-sponsored by the Association of WV Garden Clubs and the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. Brooks Bird Club provides the birder leaders.
I started helping with this event while working as a naturalist at Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge. Now that I am retired, I keep helping with this because I love it. It is a great gathering of people that love to get outside and explore nature. Plan now to join us next year.
Benjamin, Jocelyn. May 1, 2017. “Wildflowers Benefit Agricultural Operations, Ecosystems.” Natural Resources Conservation Service blogpost. https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/national/newsroom/features/?cid=nrcseprd1326644