As the daylight hours get longer, the wildflowers begin to bloom.
Tomorrow is the official first day of spring.
March 20 is the vernal equinox, when the sun is directly above the equator and day and night are equal in length.
Plants (as well as birds and most other animals) do not pay attention to this celestial milestone. Beginning in early February, wildflowers respond to the ever-longer daylight hours. First is the skunk cabbage, which grows out of its swampy hiding places while the ice and snow still exist. This botanical quirk counters winter weather with thermogenesis: the ability to generate its own heat. Flowers and pollen appear by mid-February.
Last February was especially mild in much of Ohio, with little snow and often mild temperatures. Rising soil temperatures are causing wildflowers to emerge, and many of them have woken up early this year. Needing a botanical fix, I headed to the Ohio River Valley on February 26th. My main destinations were two amazing properties belonging to the Appalachian Arch, a land trust that protects some of Ohio’s most important natural areas.
Flowers in the wild:Nature reserves and parks offer a respite while enjoying wildflowers
The first was the Chalet Nivale Preserve in northwest Adams County. Nivale (ny-val-ee) means “snowy” and refers to the scientific name for the snow trillium: Trillium nivale. The reserve is home to a huge population of this rare plant, which is only known in about a dozen of Ohio’s 88 counties. Most populations are highly localized, widely scattered, and often small in size.
By the time of my visit, many trilliums were already in bloom, I had not seen them before. Less visible, but no less interesting, were the flowers of the American hazelnut spindle shrub. Its long drooping spikes of male flowers are eye-catching, but of greater visual delight are the tiny scarlet female flowers. They are only a few millimeters in diameter and upon closer inspection resemble colorful sea anemones.
From there it went south to an impressive east-facing cliff overlooking the Ohio River near the city of Manchester. The Appalachian Arch owns a 300-acre reserve here known as the Ohio River Cliffs. This is the first place I know in Ohio to get wildflower medicine at the end of winter.
Even in the early hours of February 26, I saw over a dozen wildflowers in bloom. Tiny parsley, aptly called the harbinger of spring, was everywhere. The whopper is several inches tall, but it pushes through fallen leaves to present salt and pepper-colored flower umbels in the late winter sun. Ghostly white trout lilies, their pale blooms seemed to float low above the forest floor, were everywhere. This is our earliest native lily to bloom.
Photo gallery:Spring flowers
Evidence of the rapid growth of wildflowers was Potentilla, one of only two native poppies in the state. At the exit from the reserve, I noticed one in full bloom, its flower has not yet blossomed. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t there when I passed by two hours earlier.
The Cliffs of the Ohio River are known for huge bluebell carpets, but the flower show doesn’t usually take the stage until late March/early April. This year, many bluebells have already risen, and some even bloomed. Other early flowers were cutleaf nibbler, hepatica, rue anemone, and yellow harlequin.
By now, almost a month later, many more wildflowers have appeared, including in the Columbus area. Good places to hunt them include Battelle Darby and Highbanks metro parks. The inhabitants of northern lands such as Cleveland, Mansfield and Toledo need hope. Spring is rolling north at about 17 miles a day and soon the flower show will hit your neighborhoods.
Naturalist Jim McCormack writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.
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