Wild Flowers Of The Woods
Springtime in the woodlands of Western New York is a treasured time of rebirth, revelation and resilience, even in the midst of April snowstorms and today’s COVID-19 crisis.
Its unfolding brings reassurance and hope after the long gray months of winter’s chilly darkness, and spiritual, emotional, and physical renewal in times of uncertainty and concern. Our region’s vernal awakening is cued most reliably by the shortening of night, hastened by rising temperatures and abundant April rains. There is faithfulness in this springtime story, offering a reminder of the power of light and warmth – something we all need these days. As soils warm and spring showers come, microscopic bacteria, fungi, and other tiny creatures become active once more, working rapidly to decompose the remains of last year’s autumn leaves and leftovers. Nutrients made available by these essential little recyclers, in turn, are soon absorbed by plant roots and incorporated into buds, blooms, and tender green bursts and bundles of life.
Among the earliest of wetland flowers is the familiar skunk cabbage, whose purply-green hooded flower clusters and unfurling bright-green leaves actually melt their way through early-spring snows, while vibrant yellow blossoms of blooming coltsfoot and early violets splash color along sunnier trail-sides and clearings.
Other now-rare early woodland bloomers are the luminous white blossoms of bloodroot, enfolded in scallop-ruffled leaves, and the iridescent and delightful white, blues, and pale pinks of tiny hepatica. More commonly-encountered and aptly-named spring-beauties, pink-striped and petite, bloom in abundance in sunny clearings from mid-April on. Soon to follow in wet meadows and marshes are bright-yellow marsh-marigolds, also called cowslip — one of our larger members of the buttercup family. Paler-yellow trout lilies and purple-red, white, and painted trillium, wild ginger and goldthread, Solomon’s seal and starflowers, May-apple and foamflower … all reveal themselves in an unfolding pageantry of ephemeral and exquisite beauty and hue, each in its appointed time. And time is short, for these earth-hugging forest wildflowers must mature and reproduce quickly, before the trees fully leaf out and block the sun’s life-sustaining and growth-fueling solar power. Bloom time must also be in synchrony with early-emerging pollinator-partners such as honeybees, bumblebees, beetles, syrphid flies, gnats, and thrips, crucial little go-betweens enticed by floral rewards such as nectar, pollen, oils, waxes, and warmth.
High overhead but often unnoticed, the trees of the forest are abloom with fleeting spring blossoms as well. Maple, beech, birch, aspen, ash, oak, and many others are in reality big, woody, wind-pollinated wildflowers! Bearing thousands of tiny, inconspicuous blossoms in subtle pastels of pinks, greens, creams, and yellows, many trees in our area produce massive amounts of dust-sized, life-giving pollen in late March, April, and early May. They, too, must blossom and set their pollen aloft before leaves unfurl and block the breeze, ensuring that pollination is unencumbered and efficient.
For floral reproduction to be successful, both in the woody canopy and in the spring ephemerals rooted below, the pollen, which will deliver sperm, must find its way onto its particular species’ sticky female flower parts, so that eggs may be fertilized and diminutive seed-borne embryonic plants may develop within the berries, nuts, samaras, capsules, and other fruits of the forest.
Intricate in design and breathtakingly beautiful, whether high above or dwelling upon the good earth, each woodland bloom is fully functional, and holds a special hope and promise for us all – for if pollination and fertilization succeed, seed and fruit development will follow, ensuring new life in the forest for generations of springtimes to come.
Becky Nystrom is a retired SUNY JCC biology professor, current board president and founding trustee of the CWC, and a longtime CWC volunteer and supporter.
The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. For more information, call 664-2166 or visit chautauquawatershed.org or facebook.com/chautauquawatershed.