Imagine these bottomlands carpeted with spring ephemerals of many species – an early April buffet laid out for the pollinators, rushing to bloom before the leafy canopy closes. Once it was so in this place. And though the nature blogs will be posting amazing pics of gorgeous spring wildflowers this time of year, it’s a miracle we have any left. These plants are up against tough environmental challenges under the best of conditions, since they depend on the short window of forest sunlight available in early spring.
I said in an earlier post there would be no extravagant wildflower displays at Beargrass Creek SNP, but that’s not entirely true. Fragments of the former glory can still be found here and there, but most areas of the forest are barren of spring ephemerals. This leads me to wonder – why did they survive in this spot or that one, but nowhere in between?
Spring ephemerals are one of the main casualties of forest degradation. Colonies can be hundreds of years old – once they’re decimated, recovery (if it occurs) can take centuries even under the best forest conditions. Seeds are dispersed only a few feet from the parent colony by ants, in the mutually beneficial behavior called myrmecochory.
Cut-leaved toothwort has persisted and even recovered (post bush honeysuckle removal) a bit better in our forest than other ephemerals. In parts of the bottomlands, many small patches are blooming now.
For the most part, what passes for spring in our forest now is the neon yellow-green flush of privet, bush honeysuckle and wintercreeper new leaves, outpacing everything else by weeks. I dislike spending so much time tediously removing these non-native invasive plants – but rather than demonize them it’s important to remember how they got here.
It is hard to talk about “native” plants without implying that they are morally superior. And “invasive” plants are decadent, uber-competitive bad guys that just want to take over the forest. But this is a complicated issue – the plants we now call invasive were introduced into our home landscapes as horticultural varieties of wild species from somewhere else. These varieties were selected for features such as fast growth, hardiness, and heavy flower and berry production. So we created this monster ourselves.
Wintercreeper berries from a vine in my yard or your yard or anybody’s yard may have started the embedded and spreading patch in the pic above. While our native ephemerals can take years to advance a few inches, one Wintercreeper vine runner can grow several feet in a season.
But exactly how did this happen, the replacement of one flora with another? Those landscaping standbys – Privet, Bush Honeysuckle, Wintercreeper, Porcelainberry – are all massive producers of bird dispersed seed. But as usual there’s more to the story; invasive non-native plants are a relatively recent arrival to our forest, and populations didn’t really dominate until about forty years ago. There must have been something that set the stage for their invasion. In the case of our forest and many others, the land was left in a damaged state after hundreds of years of multiple use – livestock grazing, logging, wetland draining, agriculture, channelization of the creek, etc. No surprise that even when these practices ended, the former forests could not revive themselves. Soil erosion alone was a major factor – the steep gullied appearance of our forest’s hillsides is evidence of land once laid bare. The native seed bank was depleted, but now plants had been introduced to our urban landscapes that could tolerate almost anything. The birds took it from there…
But back to that question I asked earlier – why did little pockets of wildflowers survive the invasion? The old rusty section of fence in the pic above is a clue. The land use history of our forest was determined by a patchwork of ownership, as well as the terrain. In some places, ephemerals are found thriving right up to an old fenceline, then dwindle out suddenly on the other side. Perhaps the sheep and cows grazed on that side? Very old Sugar maples seem to harbor the best wildflower colonies, perhaps their shade kept the site moist and reduced competition from other plants. There’s no doubt the best remaining sites have all the qualities that allow spring ephemerals to thrive – rich moist soil with old trees, near the base of slopes or in drainages.
But even the best sites have been severely degraded. We can be sad about how things are, or try to restore what remains. Post Bush honeysuckle removal, it’s sometimes a nice perk to see suppressed wildflower patches begin to revive. However they are quickly overwhelmed by the much faster growing invasives, which also respond to the increased sunlight. The pics below are examples of what volunteers are doing in our forest to restore and revive spring ephemerals.
Above – a patch of Trout lily is competing with Wintercreeper. Below – note the yellowing Wintercreeper leaves, sprayed with herbicide in late fall.
Above – a restored Trout lily colony. Wintercreeper was sprayed and hand pulled for 2 seasons. This colony could be centuries old.
Today’s project! This nice patch of Mayapples has an old truck for company. They’re looking a little roughed up after two hours of pulling small Bush honeysuckle and Wintercreeper in their midst, then rerouting deer traffic around them.
These guys were literally waiting in the background for me to leave, so they could tuck in to the freshly pulled weeds.
Though not a spring ephemeral, the enthusiastic revival of spicebush in our forest is a bounty for early season pollinators. I’ve seen Paper wasps and many bee and fly species on it the past few weeks. Even watched a Phoebe snagging flying insects near blooming Spicebush.
Tiny insects are a very important part of the spring ephemeral equation too. Many have specialist pollinators from the mining bee genus, Andrena. Spring beauty, Trout lily, Waterleaf and Bellwort each have a Mining bee species (that retreats underground in summer as well.) I’ve never seen one of these and don’t know if they are in our forest, but will watch for them.
So what do these flowers mean to the overall health of the forest – are they really necessary, or just pretty icing on the cake? Wouldn’t those heavenly-scented Bush honeysuckle flowers do just as well or better than tiny Spicebush blooms? As noted above, flowers and their pollinators co-evolved over the eons. For many insects, the right flower’s nectar at the right season means survival.
Today I found this Trout lily on the edge of blooming, in a small restored colony.
Admittedly spring ephemerals are not the most pressing problem on the planet. Sometimes I feel foolish for caring about something that seems relatively inconsequential. But I believe we have to follow our passion, if possible – and forest revival happens to be mine.
For native plant lovers – Wild Ones Louisville is having a combined meeting/ potluck/wildflower garden tour, with the opportunity to dig some extra plants for your garden.
Contact Hart Hagan firstname.lastname@example.org