Ear to the Ground: The Insider Dirt to Gardening in Upstate NY

Natural Selections: Woodlot Wildflowers

by janem on June 5, 2013

Story and photographs by Rich Finzer

There’s no doubt about it—I adore wildflowers; it doesn’t matter what kind. It could be a lush stand of Joe-pye weed growing in a damp ditch, or the azure-blue blossoms of chicory sprouting from roadside gravel. Here in upstate New York, we’re blessed with both an abundance of wildflowers as well as scores of wildflower species. As the owner of a 40-acre perennial garden (my woodlot), some of my favorites are the early springtime arrivals found growing there.

Once the woods sheds its blanket of snow and sunshine begins warming the ground, the flowers that remained buried all winter reawaken. Only during early spring, before the deciduous canopy leafs out, will the sun’s rays will reach the forest floor. During this fleeting weather window, lasting only 4 to 6 weeks, is when woodland wildflowers must complete their flowering and pollination cycles. Following that, the ground is enshrouded in deep shadow and the sunny window closes for another year.

The vanguards of the flowering cycle are spring beauties, or Claytonia virginica. These tiny little blossoms poke through the dried leaves by late March or early April. The plant’s miniature blossoms, borne on slender, 2-inch stems, measure less than ½ inch across, smaller than the diameter of a dime. Each has five tiny petals lined with veins of color ranging from light pinks to deep magenta. It’s been said that, like snowflakes, no two spring beauty petals are identical. I couldn’t say for sure. All I know is that my small forest is chockablock with them. I’ve read that these tiny plants are endangered, but given their profusion in my woods, you couldn’t prove that by me. I do know this. If it had been left up to me, I’d have named them spring “cuties.” And once their buds open, the emergence of the trout lily follows close behind.

Trout lily (Erythronium americanum) is known by several other colloquial names as well. It’s frequently referred to as adder’s tongue, owing to the resemblance of its pointed purple mottled leaves to the mouth of a snake. Some field guides also refer to it as dogtooth violet. Until I acquired guidebook listing them, I simply called them “forest lilies.” A mature plant produces a pair of leaves and a single bright yellow blossom borne on a stalk 5 to 6 inches high. If soil and growing conditions are optimum, trout lilies will proliferate into vast colonies.

In my woods the plants seem to prefer growing on well drained, gently sloping ground with a western exposure, ensuring each receives the maximum amount of available sunlight. The soil type is Colonie, a mixture of coarse sand and gravel that drains extremely well. A trout lily can sometimes be difficult to spot if the blossom points slightly downward. The outer color of the petals is purplish-brown which blends into the background of dried leaves littering the ground. So tread gingerly when seeking out these tiny woodland gems lest you crush one accidentally.

You certainly won’t confront that problem looking for white trillium (Trillium grandiflorum). Its snowy-white blossoms and deep-green foliage stand in vivid contrast against the dead leaves and gray tree trunks it grows amongst. Also known as great trillium or white wake-robin, these plants have a native range extending across much of the eastern U.S. and southern Canada. As its name implies, everything about trillium is about the number 3. The flower has only three petals and the plant has only three leaves. The deeply veined foliage forms far up the stem and the flower emerges just above them on a short stalk. The plants typically reach an overall height of roughly 12 to 15 inches. Framed against the drab surface of the forest floor, white trillium instantly garners your attention.

Trillium prefer moist humus-rich ground and seem to favor growing amidst beeches or maples. Like trout lilies, trillium will also form vast concentrations. The accompanying photo was taken near the sunny edge of my woodlot. In it you can clearly see the delicately ruffled edges of the trillium petals, but the entire colony stretched back almost 200 feet, disappearing down the back of a slope. I’d estimate there were at least a thousand individuals in the group. If witnessed firsthand, these huge groupings are genuinely impressive. However, despite its apparently profligate nature, white trillium is an extremely delicate plant. Picking the flowers or carelessly knocking off a leaf will usually result in the plant’s death. Because of this, several states including New York, have banned picking wild trillium. Fortunately, these regulations do not ban transplanting it, with permission of the landowner.

Many homeowners in my locale have successfully moved trillium from their woods into their yards. If you attempt this, relocate them to a moist shady spot with rich soil and good exposure to the springtime sun. I suppose I could take a whack at it myself, but why bother? I prefer leaving them to their own devices, revisiting them every spring when they reappear. And while I renew my affection for them, I’m constantly on the lookout for another member of the family; red trillium.

Red trillium (T. erectum) is sometimes called purple trillium—or stinking Benjamin owing to its scent that mimics that of rotted meat. As wild bee colonies may still be dormant when red trillium commences flowering, it relies on carrion flies for pollination. My woodlot is separated into two distinct sections and each species of trillium seems to favor one over the other. The white ones thrive on the slightly higher drier ground where beeches and sugar maples predominate, while the red cousins grow exclusively near my creek, sharing space with black cherry trees and red maples.

Red trillium grows slightly taller than the white variety to a height of about 18 inches. The flowers have 3 petals possessing a deep rich burgundy-red hue. As the blooms age, the color gradually fades to a crimson red and finally a tired pink. This makes an excellent yardstick for determining how long a plant has been in flower, as this transition takes place over about 3 weeks. However, aside from the differences in color and size from its white brethren, the plants are equally delicate and equally protected by the same picking ban.

Like the pages in a book, or the days of the week, the disappearance of one wildflower variety signals the emergence of another. So as the blossoms of the red trillium begin fading, wild violets take their place in the growing cycle.

An ancient logging road bisects my woodlot and from its compacted surface, longspur violets (Viola rostrata) spring forth in compact little groups. As with most other woodland flower varieties, the violets prefer well-drained soil. Much like the venue favored by the trout lilies, the old road also sits atop a seam of Colonie soil. Aside from the humus provided by decaying leaves, it contains virtually no organic matter, but the violets don’t seem to mind. At my place, this is their preferred growing location. The small blossoms have five petals and their color varies plant to plant from a deep rich bluish- purple to royal blue and on to even lighter tints. They usually emerge about the same time the @#$%&* black flies start hatching and trees begin leafing out.

Soon the forest canopy will fill in and as the ground beneath cools in the shade, it signals the conclusion of the flowering cycle. Only where the sun’s rays still reach the ground will flowers continue to flourish. On my farm, that remaining sunny area is the mushy mud flat flanking the creek.

Growing atop that guck are verdant clumps of marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris). Early English colonists referred to these flowers as “cowslips” due to their striking resemblance to the cowslip plants of their native land, and that name has stuck with the flower ever since. Call them what you may, they produce a dazzling display of bright yellow flowers.

Each bloom is formed of five petals and measures roughly one inch across. Contrasted against their dark green foliage, the blossoms are easy to spot. Some of my neighbors have been successful transplanting these flowers too. As with the white trillium, I haven’t bothered. Digging around in that muck does not excite me. I’d rather leave them in their natural habitat.

After enduring the harshness of our winters, when spring mercifully arrives, the fleeting appearance of our woodland wildflowers is the reward we upstate denizens receive in return for our patience.

Additional Resources/Information
Field Guide to Wildflowers; Northeastern/North Central North America; Peterson/McKenny
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center: http://www.wildflower.org/

Raised in Chili, NY, Rich Finzer resides on an 80-acre farm near Hannibal, NY. He is a regular contributor to Living Aboard, Life in the Finger Lakes and Dollar Stretcher magazines.

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