Walks in the Spring Woods

There are two annual peaks in the diversity of wildflower bloom: one in the spring and one in the late summer and fall. The spring bloom is now tapering off because the canopy has almost entirely leafed out. Ashes, hickories, and sycamores are among the last trees to get their leaves in the spring and last Saturday (May 24) they were still not fully leafed out when we took a walk in the woods south of Jennings Pond in Danby. But the much more common maples and oaks had closed in over the forest floor and flowers that had been in full bloom the previous weekend (May 17) were now either dropped from the plant or crumpled and past their prime.

Trillium erectum
Trillium erectum

Both local species of trilliumred or wake-robin and the white—were both blooming on our first weekend outing at mid-month. Both are equally common at Jennings Pond with the white (Trillium grandiflorum) being slightly more abundant. Upon our return last weekend though the flowers of the red species (T. erectum) had largely disappeared and many of the white flowers were wilted and turning the sickly pink they get just before dropping to the forest floor.

In mid-May parts of the forest were aromatic with the smell of garlic. The ramps (Allium tricoccum) were verdant and flourishing in large patches that seemed more common on the upland portions of this tract. It is the leaves of these plants that are harvested and eaten, especially with the rise of locavore restaurants. They taste mildly of onions and have the glamour of being present only fleetingly. By last weekend they were already yellowing and the leaves, never particularly erect, were mostly prone on the leaf mold. The flowers of A. tricoccum, which appear after the leaves are senescent, had not yet appeared.

Ramps past their prime
Ramps past their prime

Earlier in May we took a walk in the upper part of Buttermilk Falls State Park, which is down drainage from Jennings Pond and closer to Ithaca. At that time and place the woods were filled with a wildflower with six “petals” that seemed to vary in color insensibly across the spectrum from pink to a very light blue, usually with a darker venation visible. (I place inverted commas around the word petals because they are actually sepals, which have a different developmental origin.) They looked so familiar, but it was only later that I was able to place them: hepatica (Anemone americana and A. acutiloba).

By the time we were talking our second walk at Jennings Pond, the hepatica flowers had vanished, leaving behind their attractive, glossy three-lobed leaves.  These leaves can be either bluntly pointed or rounded (A. americana). I realized that I was out of practice at botanizing when I saw that I had focused on the flowers when I first saw the plant and had ignored the leaves entirely. So when I saw the bloom-less plants later in May, it was a whole new mystery, which of course it should not have been.

While some plants at Jennings Pond had already flowered, others like blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) and “false” sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) have not yet flowered, and are apparently adapted to blooming in lower light than their early spring brethren. The blue cohosh tends to grow in large solid stands, perhaps because it spreads vegetatively via rhizomes. It shouldn’t be confused with the black cohosh (Actaea racemosa), which is in an entirely different family, although among folk herbalists they are both used to treat the female reproductive system. The root of A. nudicaulis can apparently be used as a substitute for the Smilax root.

Podophyllum peltatum
Podophyllum peltatum

A. nudicaulis is not the plant from which Hopalong Cassidy’s favorite drink is made. Smilax regelii is a more tropical plant and is referred to as Jamaican or Honduran sarsaparilla. Its roots are still used to make some types of “root beer” but the popularlity of pure sarsaparilla as a stand-alone drink faded after the end of the 19th century.

One of my favorite spring wildflowers, the mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), was in bloom on the second weekend at Jennings Pond. Its broad palmate leaves form a canopy of their own about a foot to a foot and a half above the forest floor. A single white, slightly fleshly flower emerges on a stalk from the crotch between the two leaf stems. If you lie on your belly in the slightly damp leaf mold of spring you can get the mouse’s eye view of the canopy that hangs far below the roof of tree leaves that are day by day closing in overhead.


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