Much as I appreciate a fine spread of early spring wildflowers, I used to think of them more as the icing on the cake. A pretty face, here and gone, no match for the gravitas of old trees. And it’s hard to get intimate with spring ephemerals; don’t touch-don’t-pick-stay on the trail. The most helpful thing we can do is keep our distance. I want to get in there and crawl around, experience them up close.
You won’t see pics with vast patches of big healthy spring ephemerals on this blog. I only really learned to treasure them by working in this forest, of all places, where a handful of species remains. Their tenacity here after centuries of logging-farming-grazing-draining-whatever is remarkable. Under the best of conditions spring ephemeral patches spread very slowly; here they’ve been in retreat.
It’s a common belief that the newly invasive flora of the past few decades is mostly to blame for the decline in native plants and wildflowers. I thought that too, until the Forest Stewards removed acres of invasives and waited to see the results. Sadly, the native plant recovery picture is very mixed, and seems to be mostly the consequence of prior land use. In fact, the degradation then abandonment of this land at a critical time actually led to the takeover by the new exotic flora. You might even say these plants were only doing their job by exploiting a niche left wide open.
In a few areas the native plant community quickly began to revive after Bush Honeysuckle removal, elsewhere little patches of native plants popped up; but for the most part very little remained. It’s a sad little patchwork, and even common weedy ephemerals like Spring Beauty, Claytonia virginica, are missing in much of the forest. A very few areas retained small but rich patches of Trout lily Erythronium americanum,and Cut-leaved Toothwort, Cardamine concatenata.
Why did they survive in some places but not others? Fence lines were a clue; some of the best spring ephemeral recovery was on a narrow strip of property kept fenced by a different owner in the past. It was equally overwhelmed by Bush Honeysuckle over the past few decades, but began to thrive soon after Honeysuckle removal. Apparently whatever happened to most of the forest did not happen here.
The fragility of this forest’s native plant community brings out my nurturing instincts. Like a weakling child, they just need more help. And finally I get my chance to crawl in there and get up close.
This “getting intimate”, I believe, is the key to allowing people to engage with nature, and adopt an ethic of stewardship. These days, we’re well trained to keep a hands-off approach to the natural world, and the result is a disconnect. Hunters, foragers, and gardeners are among the few who still pay attention. Most people hiking our trails seem to barely notice their surroundings, particularly if they’re talking. Some folks have confided they wished they knew more, but “it’s all a blur of green”. When I see kids running around off the trail, whacking things with sticks, breaking limbs, I have mixed feelings – at least they still want to interact with nature.
Urban forest restoration is an easy (?) and accessible way to regain intimacy with the natural world. I believe that without being grounded somewhere, and caring about some small piece of it, the fate of our planet can feel like just another abstraction.
When I’m pulling and cutting in the forest, I could just as well be in my backyard garden. But it’s better in the sense that, with persistence over time, the work that Forest Stewards are doing will be sustainable. There won’t be new owners to replace the native plants with Boxwood!
Here’s an example of the kind of revival work we do. This tiny Trout lily patch reemerged after the Privet engulfing it was sprayed with herbicide last fall. Now, it’s getting sunlight again, but also being overrun by Wintercreeper, Euonymus fortunei, and little hooves – there’s a deer path visible on the left side of the frame.
What to do? Wintercreeper was pulled before it took over, and then a brush structure assembled to reroute the deer traffic. (Forest-wide, Wintercreeper groundcover quickly becomes dominant after larger invasive plants are removed; so it’s becoming our main invasive plant challenge.)
Much as I love the revival work, sometimes I have to ask myself – Is it foolish to spend so much time on detailed “forest gardening”? But then I see a tiny Miner bee dashing from one Spring Beauty to the next, and it’s worth it again.
***If you’d like to have a hands-on connection with the forest, the Forest Stewards will welcome you! Contact louisvillenaturecenter.org.