Monday, March 29, 2021

The spring wildflower show commences


Yesterday morning's moonset over Adams County, Ohio. I was on the road plenty early enough to see the big ball of cheese make a spectacle of itself, then slip below the horizon.

Astrophotography was not my goal on this trip, however. Southern Ohio woodlands, and the beginnings of the vernal wildflower eruption was the target. After a long cold winter, those of us with a botanical bent can hardly wait for the resurgence of plant life.

The greening forest above is part of a very special place known as the Ohio River Bluffs. It is one of many gems owned by the Arc of Appalachia. The preserve encompasses steep south-facing slopes overlooking the broad Ohio River. Hit hard by the sun's rays, this is one of the first places in Ohio that spring wildflowers rise from their long dirt nap.

A Yellow Buckeye, Aesculus flava, unfurls its leaves. This species is one of the first trees to push forth its foliage. So quick do the leaves emerge, you can almost watch them grow.

Major eye candy at the Bluffs is acres and acres of Virginia Bluebells, Mertensia virginica. Come next weekend or thereabouts, the bluebell show should be peak. That path is a good place to be, at that time.

Scattered bluebells were doing their thing, vanguards of the floral sea that will soon follow.

A Wood Poppy, Stylophorum diphyllum, gets ready to reveal its showy orange-yellow flower. Many of these native poppies - one of only two Ohio natives in the Papaveraceae family - occur at this site and they'll be in full glory about the same time that the bluebells are.

Purple Cress, Cardamine douglassii, is one of the first spring wildflowers to bloom. The slopes were covered with them yesterday. The flowers are quite variable in color and arrangement. Some plants form open candelabras like this one, while others have a denser inflorescence. Color can range from nearly white to a deep violet.

At one point, I noticed what looked like a dead leaf stuck to a distant Purple Cress plant. Closer inspection revealed it to be a Nameless Pinion moth, Lithophanes innominata. The beautiful little moth could not have chosen a showier perch.

A perennial favorite among wildflower enthusiasts is Dutchman's-breeches, Dicentra cucullaria. Scores of them were up, and some had already issued forth their architecturally interesting flowers.

A close relative of the preceding species is Squirrel-corn, Dicentra canadensis. It is generally scarcer than Dutchman's-breeches, and is greatly outnumbered at this site. But in places, the two grow side by side allowing for comparison of the unusual blooms.

I hit a trifecta of fumeworts, which is not difficult at the Ohio River Bluffs. The Fumariaceae family has only five representatives in Ohio, and two are quite rare summer bloomers. This is Yellow Fumewort, Coryadalis flavula, which along with the preceding two species is an early spring wildflower. Yellow Fumewort is a bit earlier than Dutchman's-breeches and Squirrel-corn, and this plant has already formed a ripe fruit (lower left).

Excepting the extremely hardy and rare Snow Trillium, Trillium nivale, Toadshade, T. sessile, is our first trillium to do its thing. Many plants already sported their odd cylindric flowers. This one is nestled in a leafy bed of Dwarf Larkspur, Delphimium tricorne.

A quartet of particularly vibrant Spring-beauty, Claytonia virginica, flowers. Right on cue, this common, widespread and incredibly showy plant was out in profusion. So were many of its personal bees, the oligolectic "Spring-beauty Bee", Andrena erigeniae. My half-hearted attempts to photograph one met with failure on this day, but it did give me reason to lay on the forest floor for a bit.

Going prostrate for the bees brought me in closer proximity to numerous Red Velvet Mites in the genus Trombidium (I think). I've never seen so many on a single day. Maybe they have boom and bust years, and if so 2021 is decidedly a boom. I did not "pose" the mite - it was very busy inspecting Spring-beauty flowers which made for a particularly aesthetic backdrop.

A trio of Goldenstar, Erythronium rostratum, flowers in picture-perfect condition.

I capped the day with a stop at another Arc of Appalachia site, the Gladys Riley Goldenstar Lily Preserve in western Scioto County. One must be timely to catch the stunning Goldenstar in flower. It blooms en masse over maybe a period of a week. Arrive a day too late and nada - you're out of luck with another year to wait.

EVERY time I post a photo of this rarity, people tell me they have them on their property. No. They have the common and widespread Yellow Trout Lily, Erythronium americanum, which looks superficially similar. Goldenstar has a scattered and localized distribution, with Arkansas being the epicenter. Northern Kentucky and southern Ohio sites are far removed from the core range. Famed Cincinnati botanist Lucy Braun discovered this species along Rocky Fork Creek on the edge of Shawnee State Forest in 1964. While there are probably tens of thousands of plants along a few miles of the stream valley, that's it. Only fairly recently was another much smaller Ohio population discovered not far to the west in Adams County. These are the only known Ohio sites and the only populations north of the Ohio River.

If you can get to the Ohio River Bluffs next weekend or sometime the following week, you should be treated to a remarkable display of spring wildflowers.

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