Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Some Early Blooms

It's that wonderful time of year again; more and more wildflowers are blooming! The spring wildflower season begins in Ohio with the blooming of Skunk Cabbage in February, and slowly picks up speed until the end of March. With the arrival of April, the spring-blooming wildflowers prepare to reach a climax, with dozens of species in bloom at the same time. April is almost here, so I decided to head out and see what species were already blooming around Athens in southeastern Ohio.

White Trout Lily Ohio
I'll begin with these familiar flowers. This rather striking plant is White Trout Lily, Erythronium albidum. It's a wide-ranging species here in Ohio, only absent in heavily agricultural or urbanized counties. The White Trout Lily is best at home in nutrient-rich forests, in rather moist or mesic soils. The individuals pictured above, for example, were living alongside a small stream in a stereotypical Allegheny Plateau ravine. The name "trout lily," which is part of the common name for several other Erythronium spp. flowers, is due to the mottled leaves. These mottled leaves resemble the coloration of the Brook Trout (compare with this photo).

White Trout Lily Flower
The nodding flowers of the White Trout Lily are some of my favorite when it comes to the spring bloomers. However, they aren't the only species with a nodding flower like this. Several other species in the Lily family (Liliaceae) found here in Ohio have similarly nodding flowers, including the Yellow Trout Lily, Canada Lily, and Michigan Lily.

Spring Beauty Ohio
Unlike most of the flowers I'll be covering in this post which bloom in scattered patches along the forest floor, this species is very different. This is Spring Beauty, Claytonia virginica. In good areas, thousands of these will dot the forest floor. Sometimes they even make it into cities, where they dot lawns. The grasses around Ohio University's North Green, for example, live side by side with Spring Beauty come this time. Although Spring Beauty is incredibly common, the bottom one in the picture above is uncommon. Nearly all Spring Beauties are 5-petaled, like the one at the top. The bottom one, however, has 6 petals. Some sort of mutation is to blame, creating a flower that stands out among the hordes of others.

Bloodroot Ohio
Next up is Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis. It's still a bit early for this species, so most of the individuals I saw had just popped up and hadn't even fully unfurled their large basal leaf and flower. The strange common name for this species is due to a peculiar feature of its underground rhizome. If something cuts the rhizome, reddish-orange sap seeps from the wound. Early settlers thought it looked like this root was oozing blood, so they called the plant Bloodroot. The sap, however, is part of the Bloodoot's defense system. It's filled with toxic alkaloids, which brings up an important issue...

Does Bloodroot have medicinal properties?
If you search for "Bloodroot" on the internet, you'll get tons of results talking about its supposed "medicinal" uses. However, as I just mentioned, the sap contains toxic alkaloids. This highlights a huge topic I could rant on and on about, but I'll only make a quick aside. So many of these "alternative medicines" people talk about and advocate for either do nothing, or actually harm you. For example, people say you should put Bloodroot sap on skin cancer, as it gets rid of the cancer. In reality, the specific alkaloid contained in the sap (Sanguinarine) disrupts your cells' sodium-potassium pump, which results in your cells dying. The dying of these cells creates a type of necrotic scab called an eschar. It's literally a scab of dead flesh. Depending on the amount of Bloodroot sap you apply to your skin, the result can be a dangerous disfiguring of whatever part of your body you applied it to. This is not healthy or beneficial to do at all.

This is just one example of the thousands and thousands of "alternative medicines" actually being downright dangerous for people, as their supposed medicinal properties are simply unfounded. To quote the comedian Tim Minchin, "You know what they call alternative medicine that works? Medicine."

Wild Blue Phlox Ohio
Among all the primarily-white flowers that I saw while out stood a single bluish-purple flower. This is Wild Blue Phlox, Phlox divaricata. Ohio has several species of phlox, but this one can be identified by its hairy stem, narrow lance-like leaves, and a flower with the stamens and pistil not sticking out of the tube made by the fusion of the lower portions of the petals. This deep tube poses a problem to many potential pollinating insects. Only those insects with long tongues, such as butterflies and moths, can reach deep enough to hit the nectar and incidentally pick up the pollen.

Snow Trillium Ohio
And finally, I want to talk about a special flower. This is Snow Trillium, Trillium nivale. We have 8 species of trillium native to Ohio, with the most familiar being the Great White Trillium,
Trillium grandiflorum. Some of the other trillium species aren't as well known or widespread, and Snow Trillium is one such species. Aside from one random county in eastern Ohio, Snow Trillium is found scattered throughout southwestern Ohio. This range is not surprising, as Snow Trillium loves limestone-based soils, and southwestern Ohio has many appropriate areas. Even so, the presence of appropriate habitat does not mean Snow Trillium will be present; the Ohio populations are scattered and often in low numbers (aside from a few really good populations).

Snow Trillium, Trillium nivale
I've wanted to see Snow Trillium for several years now, but I never had the time nor means to travel to one of the populations. Until this year, at least. I learned of a population in Adams County, and on a free day during my spring break I drove the 1.5 hours from Athens to Adams County with the goal of finally seeing some Snow Trillium in bloom. It was an easy enough goal, as I saw my lifer Snow Trillium even before stepping onto the trail! And I have to say I was thoroughly surprised; I had read that Snow Trillium is a small flower, but I had no idea just how small they were. They are downright minuscule. Just to give you an idea, I put my 2-inch wide lens cap next to some for a comparison. Really tiny, right?

You might be wondering why this species is called Snow Trillium. The name has to do with what time of year it blooms. Snow Trillium is an early bloomer, blooming in mid March here in Ohio. Oftentimes this is still early enough for it to snow, and the blooming Snow Trillium might find itself dotting a snowy landscape. The early settlers called this trillium species Snow Trillium as a result, to help separate it from the later blooming trillium species, which bloom after the winter snows end.

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Do you love spring wildflowers? Do you live in Ohio? Do you want to keep up to date with what species are blooming where in the state? If so, you're in luck! Every spring, ODNR has a bloom tracker which gets updated weekly. This tracker tells you what species are blooming, and where they are currently blooming. To see the weekly reports, just click on this link!

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