Thursday, February 29, 2024

The first wildflowers erupt


Ivy-leaved Speedwell (Veronica hederifolia) was in full bloom on south-facing slopes of the Ohio River last Saturday, February 24. Shauna Weyrauch and I visited the deep south of Ohio last weekend seeking, among other things, early flora. This species was not a primary target. Little Eurasian weeds such as this speedwell are always among the first flowers to bloom, and some of them, such as Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) can be found in flower any month of the year. On this excursion, native plants were our goal, but I could not resist an image of the showy speedwell flower.

Our first stop was the Arc of Appalachia's Chalet Nivale Preserve in Adams County. The "Nivale" in the name refers to Trillium nivale, or Snow Trillium. Thousands of the tiny lily relatives occur there, and it is the first of Ohio's seven trillium species (used to have eight. Trillium cernuum is considered extirpated and was only documented once, in 1879 in Lake County) to bloom.

While February 24 might seem early for this species and the ones that follow to be in flower, such enthusiasm to burst from the soil is not atypical. We saw maybe 30 trilliums in flower, out of the many thousands that occur at this site. Unless there is heavy snow and extreme cold in late February - an ever-rarer occurrence, it seems - one can nearly always find a few ambitious specimens of our earliest species to bloom.

A brave Virginia Bluebell (Mertensia virginica) thrusts forth a flower and several buds. Our next stop was the Arc of Appalachia's Ohio River Bluffs Preserve, which overlooks the Ohio River and the hills of Kentucky. The steep south-facing wooded slopes always spawn early wildflowers, often a week or more before other sites in southern Ohio.

The Bluffs are famed for their huge carpets of bluebells, and they'll probably be peaking around mid-March. Scores of densely tufted rosettes were out of the ground on our visit, but almost none had managed to produce blooms like the hardy specimen in the photo. It was about 28 F when I took the picture.
Unsurprising but always welcome was the aptly named Harbinger-of-spring (Erigenia bulbosa). The elfin parsley is to be expected by late February, but while there were scores of rosettes, this was one of few flowering specimens that we saw.

PHOTOGRAPHY NOTES: When shooting wildflowers, it is important to get on the level of the subject. I sometimes handhold - if I can get a fast enough shutter speed - and have the camera's body on the ground. That's what I was doing here. Harbinger-of-spring is only a few inches in height, and to get the beautiful creamy bokeh (background) there cannot be distractions like leaf litter immediately behind the subject. Plus, getting on the subject's level creates an intimacy lost when standing or kneeling and shooting down on the plant.

More often than not, though, I prefer to have the camera mounted on a tripod. And the Oben CTT-1000 is killer for wee subjects, the best I've yet found. It is carbon fiber, weighs nearly nothing, is highly adjustable and splays flat on the ground if you want. This micro-tripod is only about $90, and so small it tucks easily in my backpack. Jeff B. has them RIGHT HERE and will promptly ship it to your door.

The advantage of having the rig stabilized on a tripod is that my favorite settings can be used. I like to shoot at very low ISO settings, usually 100 or 200, and that can mean really low shutter speeds. Somewhat offsetting that is the wider apertures that I favor for plants, which usually range from f/4 to f/7.1, rarely smaller. As long as wind isn't a factor, shutter speed is irrelevant when working from a tripod. This Harbinger-of-spring shot was an exception to my standard apertures: I shot it at f/9 (at 1/30 second), to get a bit more depth through the inflorescence, and because there were no potentially distracting objects behind my subject. With no need to hold the camera, I can use two-second timer delay, so that I'm not even touching the camera when it fires. The Canon R5 has the ability to just touch the rear screen, and it instantly focuses on the spot that you touched and then immediately initiates the shot process. Two seconds later, the camera fires. Flash? Never, or nearly never, if the subject is a plant. Flash typically imparts a harshness to the subject, and harshness is not what I'm after with wildflowers.

One our most beautiful members of the Liliaceae, White Trout Lily (Erythronium albidum). It leads the parade of trout lilies - two other species occur in Ohio - and it isn't atypical to find a few in flower by late February. Come early to mid-March and on into April, the two yellow species will be in flower in southern Ohio, and one of them is one of our rarest plants, the Goldenstar (Erythronium rostratum). The Arc of Appalachia (incredible conservation organization!) owns the Gladys Riley Golden Star Lily Preserve in western Scioto County, and it is a must-visit place when its namesake Goldenstars are in peak bloom. There are thousands of them, and one would not suspect it is rare in Ohio after seeing them all at this site. But there is only one other much smaller locale in nearby Adams County. The peak bloom varies a bit from year to year, but usually is between mid to late March, although in years past I've seen flowers in early March, and into the first week of April.

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