Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Spring Ephemera

Too much woods and too little time.

I am excited to find ordinary ramps, Allium tricoccum, the kind that grows in dense matts, has larger leaves, and reddened stems in a far corner of the woods, just below the road, next to an ash tree, Virginia Wetleaf and Wood Anemone. I've looked in all corners by this time, and this appears to be the only patch making the common ramp the rarer of the two in our woods!

In other ramp news, this patch of A. burdickii appears to have been chomped by deer with good taste.

At the edge of the north slope, Large-flowered Bellwort, Uvularia grandiflora. Could its wilted appearance be a defense against browsing deer?

According to Illinois Wildflowers: "The presence of this plant in a deciduous woodlands is an indication that much of the original ground flora is still intact." That's good news, but it's not the whole story in our woods. I do think this bellwort is another worth trying to cultivate.

The quantity of Viola species makes identifying them a hassle, at least for busy guys like me. They grow everywhere -in the lawn, in the gardens, in the woods, on the old farm roads and paths. They are lovely. This one might be Northern Bog Violet, Viola nephrophylla.

We have blue, white, lavender, purple and yellow violets growing all around. Above, Downy Yellow Violet, Viola pubescens.

Jack In The pulpit, Arisaema triphyllum, are coming up throughout the woods.

Jack can change to Jackie from year to year, depending on reproductive success in the prior year. According to Minnesota Wildflowers: "Males tend to be smaller than females and have a small hole at the bottom of the spathe which allows pollinators to escape (with their pollen) more easily. Female plants lack the hole and pollinators are more likely to become trapped, better ensuring successful pollination." Pollination leads to the multicolored fruit seen here.

Wood Anemone, Anemone quinquefolia, growing in the drier, upslope woods near the old tractor road. 

In another, forgotten location, a pink variety of Wood Anemone.

I spotted this from across the bridge. Lousy phone photo, but maybe you can help ID it. The leaves are reminiscent of Red Elderberry. It is a pretty weak specimen, looks to be damaged by limb-fall, and is growing under a canopy of cottonwoods.

Walking the old tractor road, pulling buckthorn, I leaned in to pull this one until my vision kicked in to halt me.

A nest of baby spiders, no idea what kind, but possibly an orb weaver type. An ephemeral of another kind -off into the world younglings, and do your good work.


The greatest, visible threat to the woods and its ephemerals is the invasion of the biennial herb Garlic Mustard, Alliaria petiolata, and the shrub or small tree known as Common Buckthorn, Rhamnus cathartica.

In this fine looking scene it is easy to forget that it is greened with an army of mustard only a week away from blooming. I've begun pulling it out as I walk through the woods, but this process eats time quickly and there is always more mustard to be found! I may have to wholesale cut them back with a weedeater or sickle just to stem the tide. As is so often the case with strong weeds, these break at the root only to regrow. Any gardener knows what happens then -it simply grows back even faster, setting flower and seed on a smaller, harder to pull plant. Garlic Mustard has a 5-7 year seed bank, but it should get a little easier each year.

Garlic Mustard is bad, but nothing in our woods is as challenging as Buckthorn. Every fallen tree is another opportunity for this plant. While this corner has been a Buckthorn stronghold for many years, it really took off after a great White Oak toppled in a bad thunderstorm four years ago. It now grows on the trail as much as to the north and south of the trail.

Buckthorn can become an impenetrable thicket above and below ground. A tangle of fibrous, tough roots chokes out plants below the soil and a dense cover of leaves smothers ephemerals and low growing shrubs from above. Although many young saplings die back in winter, each sprouts new leaves from the lower stem and ground each spring. I hand pull up to 1/4-inch diameter twigs in advancing areas, but in established "groves" larger shrubs and twigs must be dug out, doing further harm to the plants that may have coexisted thus far.

Within the great wetland, large Buckthorn grow on the slightly higher ground occupied by the beautiful Red Osier Dogwood and Pussy Willow. Its seed is dropped by perched birds, which then sprout and overtake the dogwoods and willows. I haven't seen it to go head to head with cattails or get a sure foothold in the ephemeral pond of the back swale. In fact, after last year's flooding, I see many small upstarts didn't sprout this spring. Can we flood them out? If not water, then I love the idea of burning them out, although this would be hard to do safely.

Forestry experts, ecologists, park managers, and many others often discuss the advancing Buckthorn and Garlic Mustard as an ecological issue, a problem of "native" forest habitat. Surely it is, but for me this is a gardening problem. Intellectually, I agree with the experts, but my motivations are less than pure. I simply don't like the look of a Buckthorn monoculture and prefer to be able to see through the woods. I like surprises, yet Buckthorn and Garlic Mustard offer none other than the ability to show up in a previously unheard of location. It may be that ecological problems are more easily taken on when we believe we act for our own interest.

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If I do not respond to your comment right away, it is only because I am busy pulling out buckthorn, creeping charlie, and garlic mustard...