‘The glorious re-emergence of forest wildflowers’

By Jared Rosenbaum
While many celebrate the coming of the New Year in the deep cold of January, a more authentic transition is marked by the glorious re-emergence of forest wildflowers in spring. With the blooming of bloodroot, hepatica, spring beauty and other woodland natives, the earth signals the end of another harsh season of deprivation and the return of bounty and warmth.
These flowers are diminutive herbs, blooming at well under a foot tall. The spring wildflowers arise, bloom spectacularly, and go to seed, all before canopy trees have fully leafed out. They have a rhythm all of their own, basking in the mounting April sun, nourishing the queen bumblebees and other native pollinators, and welcoming us to a season of abundance.
As summer nears, the tree canopy leafs out and shade closes over the woods. Many of the spring wildflowers then go completely dormant, disappearing into bulbs, corms and other underground parts until the next year. For this reason, species such as spring beauty, toothwort, trout lily, and Dutchman’s breeches are also known as “spring ephemerals.”
Small though they are, the spring wildflowers can be quite beautiful. Trout lily, for example, has bell-shaped blooms much like the domestic lilies of summer, but in miniature and yellow-hued, speckled with rust colors, with anthers of reddish cinnamon. Its leaves are tulip-like blades, mottled with patterns mimicking the dappled shade on the forest floor.
One of the first spring wildflowers to bloom is hepatica, with open flowers ranging in color from white to deep cerulean blue. Unlike the ephemerals, it maintains low evergreen leaves through the year, leaves that store energy reserves in much the way that the bulbs of other species do. When the first buds of hepatica arise in the spring, their stems are clad in a dense insulating fur. The flowers are loosely hooded with fuzzy bracts, and the whole picture is both exquisite and adorable.
Many spring wildflowers benefit from unusual seed dispersers like ants and turtles — or employ variations of catapult-like seed propulsion to spread. They are responding to the evolutionary challenge of growing low within dense forests, where wind is stilled, limiting wind dispersal, and fruits attractive to birds (another widespread dispersal mechanism) would be lost in the lush and taller growth of summer.
Though small, woodland wildflowers can grow in large clones and be quite long-lived, slowly spreading through mature woods. A few are bigger and more tolerant of disturbed habitats — tough species like Jack-in-the-pulpit and May apple. Even spring beauty, small though it is, can be found in some lawns — those that are not maintained with herbicides or mowed too early in the season, most likely lawns of houses carved out of what were once woods, perhaps with an old oak or tulip tree as a reminder of the forest that was.
Many of us know the planted bulbs of spring, such as crocuses and daffodils. Fewer are acquainted with the native species, which largely inhabit healthy forests and are slow to recolonize land converted to agriculture or otherwise developed.
One of the great local hotspots for spring wildflowers is the Sourlands, the forested ridge stretching from Hillsborough, through Hopewell and the Amwells, to the river. Here bloom a great variety of spring wildflowers from early April to mid-May. Different species can be found in different habitats, with dwarf ginseng and wood anemone flanking boulder-strewn streams, bloodroot, hepatica, and rue anemone on rubbly slopes, trout lily, marsh marigold, and golden ragwort in and along wetlands. Mesic woodlands with moist, organic matter-rich soils sometimes host the showy orchis, a purple-and-white native orchid.
The Sourland Conservancy is offering a hike to view spring wildflowers on April 25, 2-4 p.m. at the Somerset County Sourland Mountain Preserve. On this modest-paced meander, hikers will traverse the rich and boulder-strewn landscape and witness the season’s first blooms and the awakening of long-dormant plants.
This free hike is led by me, Jared Rosenbaum of Wild Ridge Plants, LLC, naturalist advisor to the Sourland Conservancy’s Sourland Stewards program. Register for the Wildflower Hike by sending an email to [email protected]. You will receive a confirmation email with additional information.
Additionally, the Sourland Conservancy has created a colorful brochure identifying common spring wildflowers of the region, available for download at sourland.org/spring.
Since 1986, the Sourland Conservancy has worked to protect the ecological integrity, historic resources and special character of the Sourland Mountain region through education and advocacy.