12 Months of Nature: April

Early Spring Wildflowers/Blue Ridge In Blossom

As always, this month’s journey was selected from Seasonal Guide to the Natural Year. The advantage to “early spring wildflowers” as a topic is that one can experience them more or less anywhere, without the need to target a specific destination. I chose Shenandoah National Park (specifically Big Meadows and the Mill Prong Trail) because it’s one of my favorite places and because it happened to coincide with another chapter in the book: The Blue Ridge in Blossom, also wildflower-related. Laurel, Frosclin and I hopped in the car on Good Friday and made our way there.

I have to admit, when we arrived at Big Meadows the wildflower prospects did not look quite like I had hoped…


Yeah. I later learned that this was a “prescribed” burn, meaning it was initiated and controlled by the Park Rangers. This is good for the environment but bad for people hoping to spot some exotic wildflowers in the meadow. Instead the meadow was charred and desolate at first glance. However, it was bursting with song sparrows (somehow still able to hide quite well) and other birds. At the woods’ edge one could almost feel the life poised to spring back out onto the open plain as soon as the time was right. Seeing the place like this was a mixed bag of emotions. We’ve been there in all four seasons and it shows stark differences from one to the next. Now we can add “fire season” to that list. It was fascinating, and I know the fire wasn’t “bad,” but I couldn’t help feeling a little bit wistful standing there among the ashes.

Things immediately returned to normal once Laurel chose the Mill Prong Trail as the locus for the bulk of our trip. At first I thought we’d be looking at a bit of a thin selection of flowers while seeing mostly not-yet-flowering plants. It was a little early and despite the mild winter the mountains of Shenandoah tend to lag a couple weeks behind the DC area in blooming. For the first half-mile or so of our hike that rang mostly true: we found dandelions, purple and downy yellow violets, more bloodroot, cutleaf toothwort, and spring beauties in bloom alongside the greenery of mayapple and false hellebore (and some other green plants I lack the skill to identify without their flowers).

I was having that exact conversation with Laurel after spotting some trilliums that were just not quite ready to blossom when suddenly these kinds of plants began to give way to large-flowered trillium and trout lilies. scattered among them were a few wild geraniums and a smattering of star chickweed. Then we happened across a small patch of golden ragwort. Clearly spring had truly come to Shenandoah, and clearly Franklin had some sort of ragwort-related apprehensions.

trout lily
large-flowered trillium
golden ragwort, one needlessly wary dog, and one regular dog

Rounding out the blossoms as we approached the Rapidan Camp (more on that in a minute) were buttercups, mock strawberries, wood anemone, chickweed (of the non-astral variety this time), garlic mustard (boo), phlox, red maple, redbud, and one bush with tiny yellow flowers which I couldn’t quite identify.

The Rapidan Camp, which I had either never heard of or at least not known its significance, is a collection of cabins on lovely grounds just a few miles south of Big Meadows. This was apparently Herbert Hoover’s retreat during his Presidency and it is now largely as it was then. Apparently one of our worst Presidents at least had good taste! We happened upon an archaeology class there and chatted for a few moments about their project and our dogs. It was all just a wonderfully pleasant pause before we commenced our return hike.

redbud in bloom on the Camp grounds

Prior months of nature:

January – Bald Eagles
February – Winter Beaches
March – Tundra Swans

Featured Species #4: Bloodroot

sanguinaria-canadensis-4.jpgA clue to the nature of bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) lies in the reference to “blood” in both its common and scientific names. At first glance, the plant would appear to have little reason to bear these names, except perhaps because it’s bloody beautiful. It stands out all the more because it is one of the earliest bloomers in Eastern North America and bears larger flowers than most other plants in bloom at this time. So why “bloodroot” then? If the root is cut or squeezed, it will exude a (toxic) red juice. That, too, is beautiful in its way.

I decided to feature this plant simply because I’ve been seeing it lately, I have some photos, and it’s pretty. My research, though, sent me in all directions and told me I had made a great choice. Thanks Wikipedia! Also Google! Oh, what times we are living in.

Sanguinaria canadensis (11)

For example, I learned that bloodroot is an example of a plant whose seeds are spread by ants. I was aware of this as a general relationship in nature, but now I know some new five-dollar words related to it. For example, myrmechocory is the proper name for this relationship (and possibly a superb hipster band name). An elaiosome is a bit of protein-filled goodness attached to the seed which attracts the ants and inspires the wee beasties to distribute the seed. What became clear as I perused more and more resources is just how fundamental this relationship is to life the world over.

Then I got into the section on “uses” and the rabbit hole really opened up. The idea that it was used in Native American medicine and art was interesting to consider but unsurprising. Some other listed uses were a bit more eyebrow-raising. An extract from the plant has apparently been used in mouthwash and toothpaste, but has since been linked to pre-cancerous lesions. Then I went on to read that the substance has also been marketed as a treatment for cancer, although FDA disagrees that it is useful for this purpose. Most of the top search results for “bloodroot” seem to be sites debating whether or not it is useful to treat cancer (or other things). Finally, there’s the story of “Pinkard’s Sanguinaria Compound.” It sounds like this was one of those miracle tonics of the early twentieth century that was of course not miraculous at all. I guess the major takeaway is that eating or rubbing this plant all over yourself is probably not advisable.

Sanguinaria canadensis (10)

Bloodroot should be easy to find in damp, wooded areas for the next couple of weeks. It really stands out with its large, white flowers and is easy to identify by both the flower and the unique leaf that sheathes the stem. Often I will see them singly, standing sentry over a wide span of leaf litter. They do also sometimes occur in large clumps, though and it’s quite a spectacle when many are in bloom together.

Bloodroot Links

Maryland Biodiversity Project
Missouri Botanical Garden