Sunday, April 02, 2006

Ephemeral pleasures

Friday a friend took me on a wildflower walk. One of the colleges in town has cross-country trails through wooded hills and along the river. What a delight!

March did finally go out like a lamb, and the heat (almost 80F by noon) had brought the floor of the woods into subtle bloom. The spring ephemerals lean heavily to white, which makes them stand out against a carpet of fallen leaves.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) was in all stages of flowering. We'll have to go back in a week or so to see the leathery leaves spread out. What a tidy, self-satisfied little plant. Gardeners mostly grow the double form, which doesn't appeal to me, though friends report that the leaves are also larger than the wild form.

I'd never seen the tiny spring beauty (Claytonia) in bloom. There was more of it than anything else flowering, both C. virginica (narrow, grassy leaves, white flowers) and C. caroliniana (wider, rounded leaves and pink flowers). There were also examples of it that looked for all the world like the product of a cross, with leaves halfway between the two species in form and size and white flowers marked pink.

Once I began to notice the mottled, almost paint-splashed leaves of the toad trillium (T. sessile), I could see great sweeps of them. The upright buds hadn't yet begun to color, but these trilliums are just as well appreciated now; what happens next is that the buds turn maroon and barely open. Nothing so heart-stopping as the classic white Trillium grandiflorum, which still thrive in enormous sheets in a few spots in the county. I won't say just where.

Toothwort (Dentaria laciniata Cardamine concatenata) was another revelation. The leaves have the same form as black hibiscus or pot leaves: long, narrow, toothy, five-fingered. A refreshing change from all the ground-level blooms, toothwort flower stalks can be almost a foot tall, with flowers arranged around the top. Few gardeners grow woodland ephemerals, but these seem like a particularly overlooked possibility.

My friend is the hiker and native plant explorer, so she was the first to identify almost everything we saw. My one contribution was spotting Hepatica acutiloba among a group of spring beauty. As with the other plants, once we saw it, we began to see it everywhere. A few minutes down the path there was a huge pool of hepatica visible fifty feet away under a grove of spicebush. Books and pictures show them as pink or white; all the ones here are pure white.

The spicebush (Lindera benzoin) made a hazy yellow canopy all through the woods. Their elegant arched shape seems to invite other plants to show off underneath, and nothing accepts the invitation with such vim as Virginia bluebells (Mertensis virginiana). Most were still just getting their purply-blue-green leaf spears up, but some were in bud, and one or two had just opened. I'm determined to return for the full display.



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