The best part of my job as education and outreach coordinator for Red-tail Land Conservancy is walking the woodlands. It can be windy, cold or rainy outside, but entering the woods changes those weather conditions. The sights and sounds of our natural world are constantly changing.
I never know what I will discover when I go for a walk: a sunbathing turtle, fragrant flowers, fresh wildlife tracks, a dewey spider web? To notice these natural gems requires me to become focused on my surroundings. Tuning into nature allows my brain to turn off the worries of the day. I become part of the wildlife in the woods.
This time of year my favorite treasure to look for is spring wildflowers. You won’t see them at your favorite garden center, and they will be nearly gone by the end of May. What are spring ephemeral wildflowers, and where can you find them in East Central Indiana?
Ephemeral means brief or short-lived. They are the flowers that carpet the woodland forest floor in the springtime. Showy white, pink, blue, red and yellow flowers, they appear starting in March to herald the arrival of spring.
The first wildflower I spotted in this year was hiding among some frosty leaves, aptly named “Spring harbinger.” As the soil temperature rises each week, new flowers appear out of the forest leaf litter. Walking in the woods becomes a treasure hunt to see what is blooming. How can you not fall in love with plants whose common names include “Jack-in-the pulpit,” “Virginia bluebells” or “Dutchman’s breeches”? They really do look like inflated pantaloons.
Poking up through the leaves, conditions are perfect in the springtime deciduous forest for these plants to grow, flower and produce a fruit. Spring rains and decaying leaf litter provide vital moisture and nutrients to help the process. In early spring there is adequate sunlight for the plants.
Their display is brief, however, because this sunlight will become fleeting as the forest canopy comes into full leaf. Producing a flower and fruit requires a lot of energy, and many wildflowers take several growing cycles to complete the cycle. The trout lily, for example, can take seven years to bloom. Seeing a patch of flowering trout lilies is a rare treat.
Wildflowers can be slow to spread because many of the plants’ seeds are dispersed by crawling insects like ants and beetles. After their beautiful display, they die back and their roots lie in wait, storing up energy, until the conditions are right again the following spring. In June, July or August you will not see many flowers in the forest, because of the dense shade and dry soil.
You won’t see a variety of wildflowers blooming in just any ordinary wooded lot. Left undisturbed, the wildflowers continue this rhythmic display year after year, signaling the arrival of spring in the woods starting in March. A few wildflowers, like the violet, can adapt to many growing habitats, popping up in yards and flower beds. Most, however, only grow under specific woodland habitats, making them an excellent indicator of the condition of a woodland.
Invasive plants like Garlic-mustard and Bush honeysuckle destroy native woodland habitats. They outcompete wildflowers for space, nutrients and sunlight while preventing germination of new trees. Disturbances to the woods by grazing livestock, tree clearing or drainage of wetlands also reduces or eliminates spring wildflowers. Once they are gone, it can take several decades for the woodland to recover and wildflowers to return, if ever.
Fortunately in East Central Indiana we have several woodlands that have been protected to ensure that we will have ephemeral wildflower displays for many springs to come. Red-tail Land Conservancy has been working to preserve, protect, and restore natural places in our area since 1999. It has more than 2,450 acres currently protected, including perhaps one of the best examples of our native deciduous forests, Yuhas Woods.
“Over 452 species of plants have been identified on the 83-acre nature preserve. Yuhas Woods has everything in the way of flora that should be in an Indiana hardwood forest,” commented Barry Banks, executive director of Red-tail Land Conservancy. “Because spring wildflowers are so fragile, they are a good indicator of deciduous forest disturbance. The diversity and number of the wildflowers speak to the outstanding quality of Yuhas Woods.”
While bloom times vary from year to year, Virginia bluebells, Large-flowered White trillium, Marsh marigold, Wild hyacinth, Dutchman’s breeches and Putty root are among the wildflowers you can expect to see at Yuhas Woods.
Christy Woods at Ball State University, Minnetrista and Prairie Creek Reservoir all have public trails in the Muncie area to walk and look for wildflowers. Riverbanks, cemeteries, and undisturbed parks can also be good places to spot a spring flowering display. If you are fortunate enough to see them this spring I hope you tune in to the beauty these plants provide.
The Indiana Native Plant and Wildflower Society (INPAWS) offers native plant sales and information on wildflowers. A free printable guide to Indiana wildflowers can be downloaded at www.in.gov/dnr/files/springwildflowers2000.pdf. Two excellent field guides for identifying wildflowers include “Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide” by Lawrence Newcomb, and “Field Guide to Indiana Wildflowers” by Kay Yatskievych.