The Hills Are Alive!
By Emily Grafton
As the cold winter season gives way to longer days, and warm breezes bear spring rains, spring wildflowers work their magic underground. With each lengthening day, sunlight warms the blanket of forest litter, energizing the long-dormant roots, tubers and rhizomes of hundreds of species of spring wildflowers.
A mosaic of white, blue, red and pink blossoms with even more colorful names like dwarf larkspur, wood betony , spring beauty and Canada violet bursts upon the barren winter landscape. Life emerges once again, under and between leafless oaks, maples and a host of other canopy trees. Yellow buttercups, poppies and blue iris pop up in moist meadows along streams and rivers. Fewer, but no less remarkable species like trailing arbutus and bird's-foot violet grow in the drier soils of rock ledges.
Every spring people turn to these gifts of nature for spiritual renewal, as they have since humans first walked the temperate zones of the earth. The ritual of taking to the woods and fields to bathe our senses in the scintillating colors, textures and fragrances of spring wildflowers is one many of us can't live without.
The peak color display varies considerably with elevation and latitude. In the southernmost counties of West Virginia, nestled in deep coves, large masses of bluebells, trilliums, trout lilies, anemones, Dutchman's breeches and a hundred other species spread across the slopes during the last half of April. However, in the highlands of Tucker and Randolph counties, the same species peak around the middle of May.
The brilliant red and yellow flowers of wild columbine ( Aquilegia canadensis ) flutter with every breeze as they dangle over rock ledges on steep banks or along streams May through early June. To the ancient Romans, the five long-curled tubular petals arranged in a ring resembled a circle of doves. Columbine is derived from the Latin word columba , which means dove. Yet to Linneaus , the curved tips of the petals resembled the claws of an eagle, thus Aquilegia from aquila meaning eagle.
However one interprets these complex flowers, it is impossible not to become captivated by the columbine's beautiful coloration and delicate, intricate form. Numerous species occur throughout the southwest and Central America, but only one species is native to West Virginia. Certain Native Americans used the pulverized seeds as a love charm; but there is no need for all that work--just looking at the flowers will do the trick.
Several species of anemones grace temperate woodlands all around the globe. The ancient Greeks named them anemos , which means wind. The one-inch, milk-white flowers of windflower ( Anemone quinquefolia ), our largest anemone, totter on wiry stems. Thus, with the slightest breeze these blossoms flutter continuously.
The Greeks believed the flowers sprang from the tears of Venus as she sobbed over the body of her slain lover, Adonis. Look for windflower in mature, rich hardwood forests, the same dark-shadowed forests where our ancestors envisioned tree-spirits and warring gods.
For those living in the Mountain State, spring's arrival is also announced by the trillium. They are the largest and most robust of our spring flowers. All 13 of our species of trilliums have three leaves, three sepals, and three petals, exquisitely proportioned. Native Americans used several species of these beauties as a cure for snakebite and a host of other ailments.
Ants unwittingly disperse trillium seeds as they take them to their nests to feed on a nutrient-rich, fleshy portion of the seed. Several of our ephemeral herbaceous plants have evolved a similar structure. Ants plant millions of woodland wildflower seeds every year as they leave the seed underground after eating the fleshy structure.
The common Trillium erectum , or wake-robin, produces blood-red colored petals that release an odor somewhat akin to that of rotting flesh. The color and odor attract carrion flies that disperse pollen as they travel from flower to flower. The pearly-white, three-inch blossoms of Trillium grandiflorum are less common and the diminutive snow trillium ( Trillium nivale ) is very rare. Look for trilliums from mid-April through mid-May in dense woods.
Most spring wildflowers produce fragrant nectar that attracts hundreds of species of flies, bees, ants and beetles. The nectar not only provides their food, but their pollen-doused feet insures that cross-fertilization and seed production will occur. Plants and insects of a given region have co-evolved and have become interdependent. Some plant species would not propagate if moved too far from the insect species that aids in its pollination.
Another unique wildflower called pennywort ( Obolaria virginiaca ) may be found in the drier soils of oak woods and ridge tops. Look closely among the leaf litter for this three- to six-inch high plant bearing multiple clusters of bell-shaped, white flowers. As the legend goes, “lucky be thee who see a pennywort.”
The dark-green, orbicular shape of the leaves resembled a Greek coin, an obolos , to early botanists, thus the derivation of the common and scientific name. Pennywort, in the same family as the gentians, blossoms from March through May.
A hand lens provides the optimum view of the intricately beautiful flower structures of foamflower ( Tiarella cordifolia ). The pistil of the flower resembles a turban worn by ancient Persians, called a tiara by the Greeks. From a distance, the conical-shaped mound of white- petaled flowers with red-tipped stamens resembles foam. Look for foamflower beside streams or in wet seeps of rich woodlands April through June.
Panax trifolius , dwarf ginseng, though only about five inches tall, makes its bigger cousin American ginseng look like a scarecrow. Dwarf ginseng produces globes of feathery-white blossoms well proportioned to the dark green three- to five- lobed leaflets. This lovely plant produces an extremely deep root that was once used as food; hence its other common name-- groundnut. Dwarf ginseng grows more commonly in the rich woods of West Virginia's higher elevations.
West Virginia's unique natural areas provide a multitude of opportunities to experience a breathtaking array of native plants this spring. In addition to the aesthetic value they have in our lives, even the smallest flower is a vital link in the complex web of soil, trees and wildlife both big and small.
Emily Grafton is the Wild Yards and Outdoor Wildlife Learning Sites coordinator for the Wildlife Resources Section.