Who doesn’t love spring? Milder weather, longer days, and the return of greenery combine to lift our spirits. Between April 29 and May 5, I made not one, but two, road trips to see spring flowers. One excursion, a trip to the Wicked Tulips farm in Connecticut, offered a pleasant afternoon with little effort or planning. Reservations are required and tickets sell out quickly, but the ride is scenic and the sight of 600,000 showy flowers en masse is pretty impressive . . . and unusual in southern New England. On the warm, sunny day of our visit, everyone was smiling.
Wicked Tulips, Preston, CT on May 5
Tulips have a short blooming season. Their flowers peak before our native New England trees leaf out, as you can see in the above photo. They do well in temperate climates like ours even though they are indigenous to mountainous areas and prefer steppes (grass and shrubland) in their Central Asian homelands. Their bulbs sprout in late winter/early spring, produce leaves and flowers by mid spring, and go dormant during summer as their leaves die back. Their growing cycle is short and early just like many of New England’s woodland flowers. Which brings me to trip #2.
Nearly every spring for the past two decades, I’ve gone on a “spring ephemeral” adventure. It’s become an eagerly-anticipated ritual, a highlight of each year, ever since I first discovered the wondrous display of woodland wildflowers growing in parts of western Massachusetts. The term “spring ephemeral” refers to perennial wildflowers that mature early, before deciduous trees leaf out and diminish the amount of sunlight reaching the forest floor. After this period of rapid growth, some ephemerals disappear completely (at least their visible, above-ground parts) and others simply fade as summer approaches. They bloom when the forest looks like this:
Mt. Greylock from Laura’s Tower, Stockbridge, April 30, 2022
The greatest diversity of these wildflowers grows in what’s known as “rich, mesic forest”: “rich” because the neutral-to-alkaline soil makes nutrients readily available; “mesic” because their moisture level is moderate. Think limestone. Calcareous soils are more common in the Berkshires, the Taconics, and parts of Vermont. Hence the need for a road trip and getaway weekend.
Timing is important. Generally speaking, this group of wildflowers blooms between the last week of April and the middle of May, though only some species will be in bloom at any given time. I usually aim for May 7 to 10th, but this year I wanted to see the early part of the cycle.
I also wanted to show my companion a small, old-growth forest that I had visited years ago. Thus, we struck a balance between trees and flowers . . . and enjoyed more than enough of both. West Stockbridge became our home base for this year’s adventure.
Day one began at the Housatonic River near the center of Stockbridge.
Our destination was Ice Glen, a glacial ravine renowned for its old trees. The forest near the parking lot and on the way to the glen soon provided a nice array of flowers. Just steps from the car, this Solomon’s seal was preparing to blossom.
Growing a short distance from the footbridge was trout lily, so named for the mottled pattern of its leaves.
Next came wake robin, a red-flowered trillium with three prominent leaves, three petals, and three sepals.
Some non-flowering plants, including Christmas fern and some sedges, also prefer “sweeter” soils. Note the “ear” at the base of each leaflet which, to some people, resembles a Christmas stocking.
Evergreen Leaves of Christmas Fern.
Possibly plantain-leaved sedge, a rich forest indicator – too early to identify.
All of these plants were growing under a tree canopy dominated by sugar maple and white ash. While other tree species such as yellow birch and red oak contribute to this forest community, sugar maple plays the major role in sustaining the nutrient-rich soil which supports these herbs. The sugar maple grows well in rich soil and, according to The Nature of Massachusetts, their basic leaves “break down rapidly in soil formation” thereby making more nutrients available.
Soon several odd-looking plants caught our attention: we’d been expecting them.
Early Blue Cohosh
Blue cohosh pokes through the ground looking something like asparagus. Then it’s off-color, crumpled leaves begin to unfurl. Given the brown-purple color of the flowers and the fact that they are blooming before the leaves have extended, I believe this is the early form of the blue cohosh. Early or late, these species are indicator plants of the rich mesic forest. They are also affiliated with floodplains – don’t forget that the Housatonic is nearby. Come summer, these plants are easily identified by their blue fruit.
Early Blue Cohosh Flowers
There were others: toothworts, violets, mitrewort, and delicate jewels like spring beauty.
Ice Glen, itself, is a different sort of place: Dominated by eastern hemlocks, the glen is shady and acidic and supports plants that prefer those conditions. The ravine’s entrance signals that one is entering a different world.
The glen is a very rocky place. The “trail” is simply the path forward through the boulder field and up and down stone steps. On a dry day, it was easy.
The rugged rock formations create caves and surfaces on which moss and ferns thrive. Rock cap fern lives a glorious life here.
Few understory plants grew in this shaded environment, mostly trillium, partridgeberry, and hobblebush viburnum in the areas that had some soil.
Birds that prefer more mature forest sang around us: “zee zee zee zoo zee” said the black-throated green warbler, “peet seet!” added the Acadian flycatcher, while the pileated woodpecker tapped away.
A small pool at the base of some steep rocks provided a nursery for mole salamanders – spotted, I would venture.
Salamander Eggs in a Vernal Pool
Despite its proximity to a popular tourist town, Ice Glen feels wild, due in large part to its magnificent trees. According to old-growth expert Bob Leverett, there are “25 acres of old-growth forest that are embedded in a larger area of very mature regrowth woodlands.” Its hemlocks range in age from 200 to 400 years! The largest hemlock in New England grows here as does the oldest white pine in Massachusetts. In case you’re wondering, that particular hemlock is 136 feet high; the pine is 161.8 feet high and 13.4 feet in girth. These are enormous sizes for each species.
I have repeatedly tried through the years to photograph very large, old trees . . . but I never do them justice. Perhaps these two images will give you an idea. The image labeled “height” depicts only the bottom of the tree. The foliage starts higher up! The tree in “girth” might be 11 feet in circumference
When I encounter a place that has functioned this long and well, I feel both humbled and grateful to be part of the grandeur. It’s my version of spirituality.
During this last visit, I noticed that the glen didn’t seem as cool, shady, damp, and lush as I’d remembered. The day of my recent visit was warmer and drier, and I attributed the discrepancy to faulty memory, to the romance of first impressions. But, indeed, the glen has changed. Two invasive insects, the hemlock woolly adelgid and the elongate hemlock scale, have severely damaged the needles and threaten the grove’s survival. Recognizing the urgency of the situation, the Town of Stockbridge commissioned an assessment of the trees’ health in 2021. The results were disheartening: 65% of the glen’s hemlocks were in poor condition, 34% were in fair condition, 1% was in good shape. The trees will be treated with an insecticide this spring. To learn more about the trees of Ice Glen and the infestation, see these documents on the town’s website.
Lou and I visited two additional sites the following day. Unfortunately, a lack of trails, poison ivy, and briars made the first place difficult to explore, though it did seem to have great potential. During a modest visit we saw golden Alexanders, wild leeks, and some healthy patches of bloodroot. The latter two are indicator species for rich mesic forest in Massachusetts. Indicators are either abundant in, or unique to, a natural community.
Bloodroot, West Stockbridge
Look more closely at this individual blossom and you will see two insects and a spider near the center. The spider seems to be in charge. This shot shows the effectiveness of the spider’s camouflage and the value of early spring flowers to insects. Many of the flowers we observed had insect visitors.
The location of our final outing, Steven’s Glen, had a clearly-marked trail and no poison ivy. It was easy to walk, but many sections had few flowers. There were some nice blue cohosh near the roadside but they were offset by massive amounts of invasive garlic mustard. The better sections for ephemerals were deeper into the property. I was happy to see some wild ginger growing on one of the rocky hills.
Wild ginger’s delightful red-brown flowers are mostly hidden from above. This particular bloom stood out because its rocky perch held it at eye level. Though unrelated to the popular Asian spice, wild ginger’s roots are said to possess a strong ginger flavor and aroma.
Along the banks of Lenox Mountain Brook, there seemed to be a greater abundance of wildflowers, though few of them were yet in bloom. This one, Virginia waterleaf, prefers rich floodplain forests. Nearby a small bellwort’s leaves were starting to unfurl.
Virginia Waterleaf, Steven’s Glen, Richmond
I am sure that many more species flowered during the past two weeks. Although I missed a few of my favorites – Dutchman’s breeches and other Dicentra, foamflower, and the bellworts – there were plenty of beautiful flowering plants that I recognized. This trip, along with those of previous years, expanded my mental picture of how forests work: What grows where? With whom? Under what conditions? How do things change? If I lived near these forests, my understanding would develop more quickly . . . but nature “happens” here at home, too.
I recently read that spring ephemerals are seen more often in books than in forests. It’s unfortunate that so few people have experienced this floral abundance or the mature forests that support them. If you’d like to see spring ephemerals in person, here are a few tips.
–For your first trip, head to western Massachusetts. Yes, there are rich hardwood forests in other parts of New England and New York, but don’t overlook your “backyard.”
Here is a map of the region of possibility. Realize that rich forests are a component of the much more common northern hardwood forests and they occupy far less acreage.
Courtesy: Mass Wildlife: Classification of theNatural Communities of Massachusetts
–Make your journey in early to mid May
–Look for north or east-facing slopes
–Realize that no two locations will have the same conditions; enjoy the variations and build a repertoire of experiences
–Do some preliminary preparation on species identification and some research about this type of forest
–Consider Bartholomew’s Cobble in Sheffield or High Ledges in Shelburne for starters, for they have good trail systems and species diversity
–MassWildlife’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species program’s description of the Rich, Mesic Forest natural community is short, accurate, and to the point.
–Other states’ natural heritage programs provide similar info. See New York’s description of “Maple-Basswood Rich Mesic Forest”
–“Community Conservation Assessment for Rich Woods Community” is a longer report by the US Forest Service that includes species lists and good background information
–Much more technical but worth a look is this article from Rhodora
–Smithsonian: “The Old Man and the Tree” about old growth and the pioneering work of Bob Leverett. The AFL has this magazine in paper format as well.
–The Native Tree Society, particularly the “trip reports” section for Massachusetts