Our Earliest Spring Wildflowers


How many different species are shown blooming in this very small area?

Two days ago the Maryland Biodiversity Project held a single species bio-blitz: submit photos of purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum) blooming that day. With about an hour to kill before heading out for another activity, I got the camera and went for a walk in a nearby park.

Before finding a few of the target plants, I snapped quick photos of anything else that was flowering. I found hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta), two or three types of speedwell (Veronica species), dandelion, (Taraxacum species), and henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) in open areas, and in the woods snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) and periwinkle (Vinca minor).

These wildflowers have something in common, other than being our earliest blooming plants: they’re all aliens. The only natives blooming now are skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) and some maples (Acer species). And some stupidly early spring beauties, as I reported last week.

This got me thinking. I have pictures of literally hundreds of different species of native wildflowers from the Maryland piedmont alone, but very few of the aliens. I love the natives so much, and find them so interesting, that I ignore the others.

But some of the aliens are rather pretty, and even if they’re weeds, they’re wildflowers, too. So this year I’m going to pay more attention to them, get good pictures, do the research, and feature them here.

There are at least four different species of flowers in the picture above. I can spot purple deadnettle, henbit, hairy bittercress, and one or two of the speedwells.

What, Already?

On Monday, February 20, after a few days of unusually warm weather, Steve and I went for a short hike in the Carderock-Marsden Tract area, sans camera. I didn’t expect to see any flowers except for skunk cabbage, but I kept my eyes open just in case. We saw lots of spring beauties (Claytonia virginica) emerging, but only four flowering. This is early, but not the only time: in 2013 I found a few spring beauties on February 18. Still, mid-March is when they generally start blooming.

We also spotted a few clumps of Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) just poking up; one had buds. Early April is typically when they they get going.

It’s been delightfully warm, but no, the show isn’t starting yet. Not really.

I did a little research on one of my favorite websites, timeanddate.com, because despite the recent warm weather, we’ve had some unusually cold days, too. Has this been an abnormally warm winter? Have a look:

December historical average high: 48ºF historical average low: 33ºF historical mean: 41ºF
actual high in 2016: 67ºF (on 12/27) actual low in 2016: 17ºF (on 12/16) 2016 average: 41ºF
January historical average high: 44ºF historical average low: 29ºF historical mean: 37ºF
actual high in 2017: 72ºF (on 1/12) actual low in 2017: 15ºF (on 1/8) 2017 average: 42ºF
February historical average high: 47ºF historical average low: 31ºF historical mean: 39ºF
(as of 2/20) actual high in 2017: 73ºF (on 2/8) actual low in 2017: 24ºF (on 2/10) 2017 average: 44ºF

So yes, it’s been about five degrees Fahrenheit warmer these past two months.

In other news, we found several stands of hibernal leaves from cranefly orchid (Tipularia discolor) and four leaves of puttyroot (Aplectrum hyemale).

One other plant has started flowering: lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria), a particularly troublesome invasive alien.



skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) [iPhone pic]

Emerald Ash Borer

A few days after returning from Anguilla we spotted a large tree newly cut down, lying by the side of the road in our neighborhood. Always on the lookout for good firewood for the woodstove, I collected a few twigs and identified them using Muenscher’s Keys to Woody Plants (Cornell University Press). The tree was white ash, Fraxinus americana (Oleaceae).

This was good news and bad news. Good news, because white ash’s relatively high BTU value means it makes good firewood. Bad news, because of the emerald ash borer.

Emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis) is a bright green, half-inch long beetle native to Asia. It was discovered infesting ash trees in Michigan and Ontario in 2002, but is thought to have been there for at least ten years prior. The adults are known to travel more than ten miles; the larvae travel through wood harvested as lumber and firewood. Since 2002, EAB has spread throughout most of the US (and parts of Canada) east of the Rocky Mountains.

There are about sixteen species of ash (Fraxinus) native to the US, and all of them are vulnerable to EAB attack. Adult beetles lay eggs in the tree bark; the larvae then burrow in and start feeding on the inner bark and outer sapwood, emerging as adults after one or two years and leaving characteristic D-shaped exit holes. Although adults eat the leaves, it’s the physical damage to a tree’s vascular system caused by feeding larvae that leads to tree death.

Ash trees are major components of certain hardwood forests, as co-dominants with maples and beeches; in some of these plant communities they are considered keystone species.* There are an estimated eight billion ash trees growing wild in North America. More than one hundred million of them have died since 2002. (1)

Nature abhors a vacuum. When a large die-off occurs in an ecosystem, every other organism in that system is disrupted. Imagine if, say, one tenth of the trees in a hardwood forest die in a short time. Now there are large holes in the tree canopy, and more sunlight reaches the understory and the forest floor. As a result, shade-loving plants will decline and eventually die, to be replaced by plants that like more sun. Some tree species will germinate and grow better as a result, and some will do worse. The soil ecology will change: there will be less competition for water from tree roots, and the fungal communities that form mycorrhizal associations may be affected. And as plant communities change, so do the insects and birds and larger animals that depend on them.

Ash trees don’t just grow in the wild. They’re also cultivated for the straight, hard, dense wood, which is used in just about anything that any other hardwood is used for: tool handles, flooring, cabinetry, doors. It’s the best wood for baseball bats, even. And ash are popular species for street trees: about ten percent of Baltimore’s are ashes. (2)

The economic impact (forestry products, plant nurseries, municipalities) has already been measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars. (1) One source has declared it “the most destructive and economically costly forest insect to ever invade North America.” (3)

So what can be done? The answer is unclear. There are some pesticides that are effective if applied correctly, at the right time, which is good news for homeowners and municipalities. But we can’t selectively treat eight billion wild trees. Research is on-going, of course.

If you’re a property owner, first determine if you have any ash trees. Or Chionanthus species (fringetree) – EAB attacks them as well. Then educate yourself so you can watch for signs and symptoms of infestation. One sign is an increase in woodpecker activity. Then check with your local extension service for current accepted practices and go from there. (See below for links.)

As for firewood, check with your county or state government. There are quarantine areas, but moving wood within an area is usually okay. Before collecting the wood in my neighborhood, I checked with an extension agent, a DNR employee, and a forestry expert; all said it was okay to take the wood so long as I didn’t transport it over county lines.

Why was the tree in my neighborhood taken down? I had a good close look at the collected wood, and didn’t see any larvae-filled galleries or D-shaped holes. Was it cut down as a preventive measure? I don’t know, but I sure hope things don’t get to the point where we have to remove healthy trees to contain this threat.

*keystone species definition from britannica.com:

 …in ecology, a species that has a disproportionately large effect on the communities in which it occurs. Such species help to maintain local biodiversity within a community either by controlling populations of other species that would otherwise dominate the community or by providing critical resources for a wide range of the species.


references and further information
(1) Emerald Ash Borer Information Network
(2) Maryland Dept. of Agriculture
(3) via a New York Times article
EAB Information Network Insecticide Options for Protecting Ash Trees from Emerald Ash Borer
Coalition for Urban Ash Tree Conservation – Emerald Ash Borer Management Statement
Purdue University Managing Emerald Ash Borer Decision Guide
University of Maryland Extension Emerald Ash Borer
Maryland DNR Emerald Ash Borer
Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources A Visual Guide to Detecting Emerald Ash Borer Damage
Washington Post article from January 2016
and there’s even a website called dontmovefirewood.org

Rosaceous Wildflowers – the Rosaceae, part three

When you learn about plant families, you start to see all the similarities between species. All the flowers pictured below, except the burnet, are just so clearly rosaceous. Click on the goatsbeard picture and zoom in; you’ll see it there, too.


one leaf of A. parviflora


inflorescence of A. parviflora

Agrimonia parviflora
southern agrimony, small-flowered agrimony, swamp agrimony, harvestlice
Five species of agrimony are found in the Maryland piedmont. I love this one particularly for the fantastically complicated leaves (click on the image for a larger view). I’ve only ever found one of these plants, but I visit it every season. It’s on the Cabin John Trail, and grows to about three feet tall amid a stand of Japanese knotweed.


Aruncus dioicus
goatsbeard, bride’s feathers
This is an impressively large perennial, growing as tall as six feet in wet soils when it has enough sun. You really have to zoom in to see the characteristic rose family structure of the flowers.

Fragaria vesca
woodland strawberry
In Maryland this species is only found in Garret and Baltimore counties; this photograph was taken in Iceland. If you zoom in you can see some of the typical rose family leaves, but most of the green in this picture comes from horsetails through which the strawberry is flowering.

20140715-DSC_0189Geum canadense
white avens
Some people consider this a weedy plant; it certainly can grow aggressively. It can be found in almost every Maryland county, and indeed over most of the eastern US.



Geum rivale
purple avens, mountain avens, water avens
Only a few sources show this species occurring in Maryland, but there’s no county data. Based on county data from nearby states, I’ll guess that if it does grow here, it will be in Allegany and Garret counties. It’s a lovely low-growing herb with multi-colored flowers. These plants were photographed in Iceland.


Geum vernum
spring avens
This is one of the least eye-catching flowers I’ve ever spotted, but it is in the rose family. Those flowers are about one-eighth of an inch across.




Potentilla canadensis
dwarf cinquefoil
This very low-growing, vining plant seems to like dry, rocky soils. It’s easily found near Carderock; look for it blooming from late April to late May.



Potentilla simplex
common cinquefoil
Very similar looking to dwarf cinquefoil, but the plants seem to be more aggressively vining. The specimen shown here was part of a large mass twining through other plants.

Rosa carolina
pasture rose
This small shrub bears its flowers singly and can be found throughout the Maryland piedmont. I planted a small one in my garden last year and the rabbits got it, damn them. Will try again this spring, with rabbit repellent on hand. Wouldn’t it be nice to have an informal hedge comprising native roses?


Rubus odoratus
purple-flowering raspberry
The fragrant flowers are borne on panicles, and although the fruits are edible they aren’t very palatable. It’s a suckering shrub, like other Rubus species. Look for it growing wild in Maryland in Montgomery County and all the counties to the west.

swamp dewberry

Rubus species (maybe R. flagellaris or R. hispidus)
I didn’t have clear enough pictures to say for sure which species this is, but this is a typical dewberry flower and habit (the canes tend to trail along the ground rather than arching like blackberries and raspberries do).


upper half of flower spike, S. canadensis

Sanguisorba canadensis
Canada burnet, American burnet
Carrol County is the only Maryland piedmont location for this species, listed as S2/threatened. It’s threatened or endangered in eight other states, too. This specimen was photographed in Nova Scotia. The flowers are borne on a spike and have no petals, just a four-lobed light green calyx and many long stamens.


a single leaf of S. canadensis


Spiraea alba
This short shrub, with flowers borne in panicles, can be found in most of the Maryland piedmont (but I took the picture in Nova Scotia). It’s range includes the upper Midwest and New England, Canada, and along the Appalachians into the South. It’s endangered in Kentucky and Tennessee.