Wild Ideas: What’s up with spring?

It’s amazing how fast spring can get busy with just a little warm weather and rain. Up here on Oventop Mountain, flowers, fungi and amphibians have been emerging.

Most of Virginia’s early-blooming native flowers are ephemeral forest dwellers, grabbing sunlight before the trees leaf out, reproducing, then disappearing. Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) — in the poppy family and also known as red Indian paint, red puccoon, redroot, or pauson  — started blooming last Wednesday (March 28). Its name comes from its orange-red sap, once used as a dye by Native Americans, according to the Missouri Botanical Garden website.

The next day, I could see hundreds of delicate little tulip-like buds, white or pale-pink, rising out of the forest litter, particularly in sunnier places. As with many early bloomers, the bloodroot only opens its flowers in sunlight, closing them back up during the night and on overcast days.

The bud of the bloodroot comes up first, on a thin, delicate stem just a few inches long. The deeply lobed basal leaf at that point is tightly wrapped around the stem below the bud. The leaf starts unfurling as the flowers bloom, stretching out to up to eight inches.

By Pam Owen
Bloodroot, a spring ephemeral wildflower, started blooming the last week in March.

Although bloodroot can grow to about eight inches high, up here it’s usually more like three or four inches. When the buds open, they reveal bright-white, daisy-like flowers up to about two inches in diameter with eight to 10 petals. In the middle are long yellow stamens.

For every bloodroot I’m seeing, there are at least as many cutleaf toothwort (Dentaria laciniata), with a few buds starting to open to reveal delicate, trumpet-shaped flowers in blue, lavender or even white. The leaves, in subtle dark green tinged with purple, can be easy to miss among the debris on the forest floor. Hepatica (Hepatica nobilis), in similar colors but otherwise quite different than toothwort, are also flowering in some spots in the forest, particularly further up the mountain.

Depending on the weather, which has been pretty dry, we should see increasing numbers of spring ephemeral flowers in bloom from now to mid-May. The Virginia Native Plant Society’s Piedmont Chapter hosts wildflower walks throughout the spring, and Shenandoah National Park holds its Wildflower Weekend, which includes wildflower walks and talks, in May. (Check my home page on the Rappahannock News website, rappnews.com/wildideas, for a slideshow of the species I found and for upcoming wildflower walks.

The recent rains also brought a few early-blooming mushrooms. Witches butter (Tremella mesenterica), a squiggly, golden-yellow jelly mushroom, thrives on rotted wood. So does a furry white mushroom I found attached to a rotting limb that I think it’s a split-gill mushroom (Schizophyllum commune), judging by a website that has photos of them. I was in a rush and didn’t check the undersides of these ’shrooms to see if they have gills and couldn’t find the fungi on a subsequent trip up the mountain. As split-gills mature and dry out, their undersides turn up, exposing the gills, so perhaps I’ll be able to see them easier later in the spring, if they’re still there.

A huge, old tuliptree had come crashing down across the the Spring Road, the trail I walk the most often at home because it’s the only flat one up here. The tree created a mess around my favorite ‘shroom stump, at the end of the trail, making access to it difficult at best. This stump hosts mainly dryad’s saddle (Polyporus squamosus), a huge, beautiful basidiomycete bracket fungus also called pheasant’s back because of its coloring.

The downed tree also effectively blocked off my usual way of accessing a tiny manmade pool above the trail, fed by the spring that gives this trail its name. Climbing over or under the tree’s three trunks, I managed to get close enough to the pool to see several egg clusters of spotted salamanders, and another egg cluster that I couldn’t identify.

While I heard wood frogs calling from the pool the day before — the first wood frogs I’ve heard here all year — the eggs could have been there for some time, and these didn’t look like wood frog eggs. They were pale brown on top, and wood frog eggs are black on top and white on the bottom. I sent photos of the egg mass to two herpetologists, one of whom thought they were from a wood frog; the other thought they were from a Jefferson salamander.

Identifying amphibian eggs is tough, even for experts, and I’m definitely not one, so who laid them may remain a mystery, unless I can monitor their hatching out and see the larvae. Then again, identifying tadpoles can also be tricky, as I was reminded of when I visited the upper pond and found large ones swimming in it. I had seen movement in the debris along the pond’s edge on a previous day but chalked it up to eastern newts, which were also busy there.

I also sent photos of the tads to the herpetologists. Both thought they were from last year’s breeding, probably of the green frog, or perhaps the American bullfrogs. I spend a lot of time up at the pond and had never heard or seen either, but the tads did resemble some I saw down in the lower ponds late in the summer last year. We definitely have green frogs and bullfrogs down there. I’m sure my experts are correct, but I’ll try to track the tads’ development to see which species they morph into.

I’ve yet to see wood frog eggs in the upper pond, where dozens of the species congregated to breed last year. But the old concrete trout tank below the dam now also has a couple of clusters of wood frog eggs . . . or at least, I think they are.

© 2018 Pam Owen

Spring wildflower walks

VNPS Piedmont Chapter: The next wildflower walk is this Sunday (April 8), from 1 to 3 p.m., enjoy seeing masses of Virginia bluebells and other spring ephemerals at the chapter’s walk at the Blue Ridge Wildlife Center in Boyce, 106 Island Farm Lane (off from Tilthammer Mill Road), Boyce. The walk, led by the chapter’s president, Karen Hendershot, is free and open to the public. Carpooling is recommended, as well as bringing binoculars if you have them. To RSVP, email piedmontvnps@gmail.com. Check the VNPS calendar for other upcoming walks.

Shenandoah National Park: The park holds its 32nd annual Wildflower Weekend May 5-6, which includes wildflower walks and talks. Download the brochure for Wildflower Weekend for more information.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 324 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”