Woodland Wildflowers, Climate Change

            Now bloom the delicate woodland wildflowers whose cousins have been driven from places more populated.  Three—spring beauty ( claytonia virginica), dogtooth violets (erythronium dens-canis), and mayflower or trailing arbutus (epigaea repens)--lift their leaves above the forest floor even under the fickle influences of climate change. In northern New Hampshire the arrival of spring these days can mean temperature fluctuations of sixty degrees or more, with snow, sleet, and freezing rain following daytime temperatures that can reach 90 degrees most unkindly.
            Spring beauties are delicate and subtle, rising perennially right after the thaw in many kinds of habitats.  Around here, they prefer the forest floor, where filtered sunlight helps protect their delicate flowers.  Each clump springs from an underground corm that pushes out narrow leaves and a bouquet of  three-inch stems, each bearing a pink-striped flower less than a quarter inch in diameter:

Each flower lasts three days before producing a pod of tiny, black seeds coated with a fleshy substance of fats and proteins attractive to ants.  Ants carry the seeds home for food, dropping plenty along the way.
            Dogtooth violets carpet the rich woods each spring with spotted leaves (some people call them “trout lilies”) and yellow flowers, each with six pointed petals.  The petals curve backward toward the six-inch stem, revealing brown spots and six brown stamens at the center of each flower.  They grow in generous colonies, so harvesting a few stems is acceptable, though the flowers do not last long in a vase.  Not violets but lilies, their common name comes from the bulb that sends up from underground each set of two leaves and  a stem.  It’s shaped like the tooth of a dog.  Dogtooth violets are common and spectacular en masse:

            Mayflowers, or trailing arbutus (epigaea repens), a little harder to find here in the Great North Woods,  are perhaps more famous harbingers of spring.  They were sold in nosegays on Boston street corners in the 19th century.  Unmindful gathering of the short flower-stems ripped out the plant’s shallow root systems, nearly wiping it out altogether.  Some of the ladies who eventually founded the New England Wildflower Society politicked the mayflower into becoming Massachusetts’s state flower, and since then it has rebounded in the dry oak and pine forests it loves.   It can be found in patches here and there along roadsides in the Great North Woods:

Olive-green, leathery leaves pop up each spring just as the snow flattening them is dissolving, and shortly thereafter tiny pink buds rise from vine-like stems.   Soon five-petaled flowers open among the leaves, filling the air above them with a perfume that rivals that of orange blossoms or jasmine.  It’s okay to bring home a stem or two as long as the stems are snipped with scissors, sparing the roots.  Better yet, pausing a moment, noses to the ground, we can luxuriate in the fragrance of an entire patch, leaving it for the next group of winter-weary walkers to enjoy.
            Climate change is underway, but the woodland wildflowers of early spring—they show us change and permanence as they bloom, reminding us that in some mindfully protected places, we, too,  may adapt.

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