The Spring Ephemerals, part 3

Well, I’ve made the decision: no wildflower hunting for the foreseeable future. You can imagine how sad this makes me. But people just aren’t being careful about social distancing, and there isn’t enough open space for everyone who insists on going out.

In the meantime, I’ll follow the season by posting old pictures.

If I were being strictly chronological, harbinger-of spring (Erigenia bulbosa; Apiaceae) would have been the first plant in this series of posts.  It’s almost certainly done blooming by now.

These little plants bedevil me: they grow only a few inches tall, the individual flowers are tiny (notice the oak leaf in the picture below), and they’re so dainty that they’re always in motion, so they’re tricky to photograph. I do love trying, though.

 

 

Another one that’s never still is lyre-leaved rockcress (Arabidopsis lyrata; Brassicaceae). Growing right out of small depressions in rocks, these plants stand just a few inches taller than harbinger of spring. Look how slender those stems are compared to the pine needles lying nearby. I’ve seen stands of these blooming as late in the season as early June.

Here’s another diminutive plant that grows in moist, rocky areas: early saxifrage (Micranthes virginiensis, formerly Saxifraga virginiensis; Saxifragaceae). Its blooming period can start as early as late March and last through early May.

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.

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)

An Eastern Belly Flower

It’s March 20, the vernal equinox, and I’m sitting by the woodstove, watching the snow fall. Four to eight inches are predicted by tomorrow night, possibly more, and I just got back from a trip to the Southwest and haven’t been out botanizing at home in about two weeks. Friends are posting pictures of bloodroot and Dutchman’s breeches that are blooming nearby, but it’ll be a few days before I can go out hunting.

look how tiny it is, next to that maple leaf!

Instead I’m looking at my pictures of Erigenia bulbosa, which, other than skunk cabbage, is the earliest blooming forb in the Maryland piedmont. This diminutive perennial plant grows only about 10 centimeters tall, barely poking above the leaves on the forest flower at bloom time. It’s a true ephemeral: after blooming, the finely divided compound leaves open a little further and the plant will grow a little taller, but it dies back before spring is over.

The inflorescence is a compound umbel (an umbel of umbels). The individual flowers are minute, comprising five white petals and five stamens, whose anthers start red but quickly turn black.

I found these blooming on February 28 this year, which is about as early as I’ve seen it. The blooming period lasts about a month. Look for it in rich, moist woodlands, especially near rivers.

Erigenia means “born early”; bulbosa is for the (edible) corm from which the plant emerges. Around here it’s called harbinger-of-spring, or sometimes pepper-and-salt (for the anthers and petals); older, less common names include turkey-pea, turkey-foot, and ground-nut1. The genus is monotypic (meaning, it only has one species), and this might be the smallest plant in its family (Apiaceae).

It’s uncommon in Maryland (listed S3). The Maryland Biodiversity Project has records for it in the counties of Harford, Montgomery, and Washington. There are a few other occurrences of it east of the Appalachians (from northern North Carolina to southern New York), but mostly it’s a plant of the Midwest, where it ranges from central Alabama to central Michigan, and westward into eastern Kansas. In Wisconsin and New York it’s listed as endangered; in Pennsylvania, it’s threatened.


1The History and Folklore of North American Wildflowers, Timothy Coffey

On the Last Day of Winter

Today is the first day of meteorological spring* (astronomical spring is still three weeks away), but as of yesterday, the 28th of February, the wildflower show had already begun along the Potomac. Barely.

Claytonia virginica (spring beauty; Montiaceae)

Just a few dozen of these were up in sheltered locations.

This one specimen of Packera aurea (golden ragwort; Asteraceae) already had well-developed buds. Often this species will retain leaves through the winter, and many low-lying leaves were visible, but I saw none of the tall growth yet. In the same location last year just a few flowers were open on March 23, with peak bloom about April 13; in 2015, I saw the first ones March 24, with peak bloom in mid-April.

Erigenia bulbosa (harbinger-of-spring; Apiaceae)

More about this in an upcoming post. Can you see it sheltering there under the maple leaf? That’s one plant with about 14 flowers!

A few alien species are starting to bloom: Veronica hederifolia (ivy-leaved speedwell) and Cardamine hirsuta (hairy bittercress).

And, I saw one clump of Mertensia virginica (Virginia bluebells) foliage emerging, but that makes a boring photo.

*more on meteorological seasons from NOAA