It’s not too late to find the flowers of April in our woods and fields, but the mild winter and warm March weather has pushed the schedule of blooming two to three weeks ahead of normal, so get out soon if you hope to see them. Woodland wildflowers are often called “spring ephemerals” because they time their blossoming to take advantage of the sunlight that floods the forest before trees have leafed out.
It is a cause for celebration when I find the delicate flowers of the hepatica on a walk in the moist April woods (not so moist so far this year, what with the warm, snowless winter and the dearth of rain). The pastel lavender, pink, or white blossoms rise on downy stalks from last year’s purplish brown leaves at the base of the plant. It is the flower’s sepals (the small green leaves below the petals in most other flowers) that give it color, for it lacks petals. Hepatica gets its name from the Greek word for liver, hepar, because of its three-lobed shape. According to the “doctrine of signatures,” plants were thought to hold medicine to heal the part of the body they resembled, so hepatica was used to treat liver ailments. For me, the increasingly rare delight of finding this flower makes it a cure for the winter doldrums, like the pure, sweet whistled song of the white-throated sparrow (“Old Sam Peabody, Peabody”) I hear at this season.
Bloodroot is more common, and easier to spot, than hepatica. The large white blossoms are showy, if short-lived, and open fully only in full sunshine. It’s believed that bloodroot’s cup-shaped flowers reflect light inward from the glossy petals, raising their temperature a few degrees above that of the outside air, making them that much more attractive to insect pollinators. Bloodroot, a member of the poppy family, gets its name from its orange-red juice that native people once used as a dye for clothing and basketwork, and for war paint. The toxicity of bloodroot’s sap, a trait it shares with other members of the poppy family, explains its use as an insect repellent, and probably the fact that our ravenous population of white-tailed deer seems to leave it alone. Other wildflowers, once more commonly found in our woods, like the trilliums, have not been so fortunate.
A walk along the sunny banks of the Wallkill may be graced by the white, pink striped petals of spring beauty flowers, which close at night and in rainy weather to protect their pollen. You may also find the small, wind cups of the wood anemone, which tremble in the slightest breeze, hence their name, meaning “windflower.” Venture into the woods, and you are likely to come upon some nodding yellow flowers, whose stalks arise from pairs of speckled leaves that give the plant the name “trout lily.” Another name, fawn lily, comes from the resemblance of the two upright leaves to alert fawn’s ears. Yet another, dog’s tooth violet (it is in fact a lily, not a violet), points to the shape of the plant’s bulb, like a canine tooth. By whatever name, trout lily is a dependable marker of early to mid spring throughout our woodlands, and walking among its spotted foliage connects us with generations of native people who walked here before us, sometimes gathering this plant’s abundant underground bulbs for food.
Nothing is so emblematic of the fragility of the web of life that makes up our woodlands than the early spring wildflowers. It should go without saying that we do not pick these blossoms, most of which are protected by New York’s rare and endangered plant law, and that we should tread carefully among them. We can be thankful when we find them springing up from the dead brown leaves, and remember that their continued presence here depends upon our willingness to restore the ecological balance we have disrupted, both globally (e.g. climate change), and locally (e.g. overpopulation of deer, as well as humans, and lack of predators).
Richard Parisio is a lifelong naturalist, educator and writer. He currently leads field trips for school classes at Mohonk Preserve, teaches courses about John Burroughs and conducts tours of Slabsides and the John Burroughs Sanctuary for groups and individuals by request. Rich is New York State coordinator for River of Words, a national poetry and art program on the theme of watersheds, and teaches River of Words programs for school classes, grades K-12, by request. Contact Rich ([email protected]) with questions, comments, or suggestions for Nature at Your Doorstep.