The Spring Ephemerals, part 1

The spring ephemerals are such a delight after a long winter. And even though it was an unusually warm winter, it seemed long to those of us who love botanizing.

The short blooming period of the spring ephemerals makes them even more special. These  are the forbs that emerge from the ground, grow a few leaves, flower, maybe grow a little more, and then die back to the ground by the time the trees under which they grow leaf out.

To be honest, after a few years writing this blog I’ve run out of things to say about most of these plants, but I still love finding and photographing them. Here’s a look at what was going on in the Potomac Gorge last week, with links to more detailed posts I’ve written in previous seasons.

One of the first to appear is harbinger-of-spring (Erigenia bulbosa; Apiaceae). This year I first saw it on March 18, but they sometimes start to flower as early as late February, and may continue through mid April.

 

 

These plants are so small that they’re easy to miss, except when there’s a large stand; then it looks like a light cover of snow on the ground.

 

 

 

Spring beauties (Claytonia virginica; Montiaceae) also carpet forest floors early in the season. They are much larger than harbinger-of-spring but still petite, standing only an inch or two tall. They seem to thrive in moist but not wet soils; I seldom see them adjacent to Virginia bluebells, for example, but they’ll be nearby, just upslope, often in rock crevices.

Spring beauty’s native range runs from the eastern great plains through the midwest, mid-Atlantic, the upper South and lower New England.

 

 

Cut-leaved toothwort (Cardamine concatenata; Brassicaceae) starts blooming soon after spring beauty, and stands a few inches taller. It’s found in much the same habitat but in my observations likes soils a little drier; I’ve never seen it encroaching on a floodplain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Its close cousins slender toothwort (C. angustata) [left] and spring cress (C. bulbosa) [below] start blooming roughly two weeks later. Read more about the various toothwort species in this post.  Look for slender toothwort in drier, rocky areas, and spring cress in very wet areas (vernal pools, for example).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coming up, more spring ephemerals, and some flowering shrubs.

Quick Carderock Update

I had a quick look around the Carderock area on Friday (March 29), and saw the following plants blooming or budding. Also had fun taking closeup shots.

Arabidopsis lyrata (lyre-leaved rockcress): a few flowers  –>

 

Boechera laevigata (smooth rockcress): buds
Cardamine angustifolia (slender toothwort): buds

<–Cardamine concatenata (cut-leaf toothwort): flowers

Claytonia virginica (spring beauty): lots of flowers
Dicentra cucullaria (Dutchman’s breeches): a lot of buds, a few flowers

 

 

Dirca palustris (leatherwood): full bloom –>

 

 

 

<–Erythronium americanum (trout lily): gobs of leaves; 5 flowers

Lindera benzoin (spicebush): flowers

 

 

 

Mertensia virginica (Virginia bluebells): lots of buds, just a few open flowers    –>

 

 

 

<–Micranthes virginiensis (early saxifrage): full bloom

The next few weeks should be spectacular.

Late March

Things are still moving along slowly in the Potomac Gorge, but with warmer weather coming I expect the show will really get going soon.

On March 25 I found large patches of harbinger-of-spring blooming near Billy Goat B.

 

The bluebell buds should open in the next few days.

 

 

 

 

A few cutleaf toothwort are out, and lots of spring beauties, of course. Spicebush is also starting to bloom.

 

 

 

And there were several bloodroots flowering near Old Angler’s.

See LW’s comments on the last post for an update of the area around Carderock.

Slowly

Thanks to a heads-up from a friend, I was able to get out to Billy Goat C for a little while a few days ago and shoot harbinger-of-spring. Still not much else to report, except more spring beauties are opening. Also happy to report that parks personnel are applying herbicide to lesser celandine, a particularly nasty invasive alien that hides behind cheery yellow flowers; plants quickly form a monoculture and are difficult to eradicate.

I also hiked about 2/3 of Billy Goat B. High water made it tricky in one spot, and I bailed before getting to the area where the worst damage is, but the trail has finally reopened. I saw nothing blooming there except spring beauties. But with warm weather, plants will emerge and bloom fast.

Interested in finding bloom dates for particular species? Scroll to the top and pull down the menu for plants by either common name or binomial to see observed bloom times in past years.

I Am So Ready

What a winter this has been! Temperatures bouncing around, crazy amounts of rain, or sleet, or snow, or any combination of the three… My favorite trails are all a mess of slick mud.

<–a single harbinger-of-spring plant emerging on March 6, 2019

blooming (February 28, 2018) –>

 

 

 

 

Nonetheless I’ve taken a few quick hikes to see if anything’s coming up yet. Last year on March 5, round-lobed hepatica was blooming on the Cabin John Trail, along with a single incredibly early Virginia bluebell. This year on March 5, I saw a single clump of hepatica leaves, without buds.

^ one spring beauty with two buds, March 6, 2019

blooming (April 10, 2018) –>

 

 

On the Billy Goat trails last year I saw the earliest harbingers-of-spring and spring beauties on February 28. This year on March 6, I saw a single harbinger plant barely up, one spring beauty with two buds, a single golden ragwort budding up, and quite a few Virginia bluebell plants poking out of the mud.

^ golden ragwort in bud, March 6, 2019

 blooming (April 5, 2017) –>

 

 

 

It’s going to be an interesting year. Flood damage in the Potomac Gorge is the worst I’ve seen in six years of monitoring the area. Alien invasives are starting to emerge from the mud and sand; did the floods do any real harm to those populations? Will that allow the natives a chance to grow better, or were they equally affected?

^ Virginia bluebells emerging from the mud, March 6, 2019

a stupidly early Virginia bluebell opening on March 5, 2018 –>

 

Hang in there, friends –spring is almost here.

Virginia bluebells carpeting the floodplain (April 10, 2017)