As I write this at the end of February we are being teased by the occasional warm day, giving us a sense that Spring is just around the corner. Our riparian forest is still bare and the Winter sunlight reaches down to a carpet of Fall leaves. Just under that carpet, life is stirring. Insulated by leaves and caressed by the Winter sun, the roots of the Skunk cabbage are coming to life. Their fleshy stems produce their own heat and the stunning maroon mottled blooms can be seen poking through the mud in boggy areas even if still covered in snow. This stinky but gorgeous flower is among the first of our Spring bloomers and is a promise of delights to come.
Early Spring offers us the fleeting opportunity to see some of Virginia’s most delicate and stunning wildflowers that will disappear once the tree canopy shades the forest floor. Temperature and sunshine will determine exactly when these ephemeral beauties show themselves but from now till the end of May is your best chance.
The Spring ephemerals have interesting names and unusual forms making them the perfect treasures to hunt with young children. So mums, dads and grandparents bundle the kids up in warm clothes and sturdy shoes and go searching for these fun plants. The most recognizable of our natives are the Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica). We often see them in shaded urban gardens but to see them carpeting the rich alluvial soils along the Rappahannock River trails is a breathtaking experience. Another colonizer is the Yellow Trout-lily (Erythronium americanum), its two distinctive green leaves are speckled brown like a trout and sheath a single yellow nodding flower.
Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) with its green and brown striped hood conceals a spadix covered in tiny green to purple flowers. Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), so named because their pure white flowers resemble traditional Dutch trousers hanging among the fern like green leaves are one of the earliest Spring bloomers. Then there’s Cut-leaved Toothwort (Dentura lacinata), Smooth Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum), False Solomon’s Seal (Smilacina recemosa), Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica), and Mayapple (Podphyllum peltatum).
While scouring the forest floor searching for these beauties don’t forget to lift your heads and observe the white blooms of the Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida), the yellow citrus scented flower of the Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) and the clusters of yellow also citrus scented flowers of the Spicebush (Lindera benzoin). If you are up for a real treasure hunt look up high for the rich purple red flowers of the Pawpaw (Asimina rubrum) hiding under the long green leaves. Easy to miss, the blooms of the Pawpaw rank as my favorite Spring flower.
Remember these are ephemerals, here today, gone tomorrow. So put on your walking shoes and wander the riverside trails every few days so you don’t miss one of these beauties.
Guest Blog by Retired Friends of the Rappahannock Staff: Nick Cadwallender
Photo Credit to Nick Cadwallender
A special thanks to Hal Wiggins who walked the trails and shared his knowledge with me when I first worked for Friends of the Rappahannock and who over the years has cataloged the hundreds of plants growing in the riparian forests of the Fredericksburg area.