DC’s Rock Creek Park in spring reminds me of an elementary school playground at lunchtime. Chatter, laughter, shouts of joy, and rambunctious behavior. Birds perform arias. Frog croak. Wildflowers gather in crowds. And the lucky hiker squeals with pleasure to discover a trout lily.
One year ago I was scheduled in April for my “Bluebells and Budbreak at Boundary Bridge.” Offered by the Audubon Naturalist Society (ANS,) the tour routinely sells out. The pandemic shut it down.
But on April 7, 2021, I joined my tour leader Melanie Choukas-Bradley. She is author of numerous books, including A Year in Rock Creek Park and City of Trees. For the last 15 years, she has led various ANS nature walks. I believe “budbreak” may be one of her favorite times to traipse through Rock Creek Park:
. . . flowers we’ve anticipated throughout the winter bloom briefly and then set their petals flying on the spring wind.Melanie Choukas-Bradley
We too fly across the woodland paths like seeds scattering in the wind. The hunt is on to find “early spring ephemerals” in glorious full bloom, including bluebells, trout lily, bloodroot, and spring beauty, before they disappear. They only last a week before they vanish. Choukas-Bradley provides us with a list of a dozen-plus wildflowers we can expect to see at Boundary Bridge as well as a vocabulary lesson.
Does anyone know myrmecochory?
“It’s my favorite new word,” explains Choukas-Bradley. “It is a translation of the ancient Greek which means circular dance. Thirty percent of our spring ephemerals are myrmecochorous. Their seeds are spread by ants.”
I also learn that many of the spring ephemerals that I will see in Rock Creek Park have ant-dispersed seeds: bloodroot, trilliums, trout lily and violets. All these wildflowers are native to the woodlands of eastern North America.
Locals rave about hunting for the first wildflowers of spring. A particularly difficult specimen to find is bloodroot flowers, which only lasts a few days.
Now I am not an ephemeral who only pops up in spring at Rock Creek Park. I walk year-round in the wind, rain, and snow. But I am fascinated by nature’s gift of the wildflower who only makes a short appearance on its stage.
Triggered by the warm weather in late March, these flowers dress up in their violet, yellow and white flower finery and congregate. But the party quickly ends once “warm weather takes hold,” according to The Spruce. “Spring ephemerals don’t die, but they go dormant and disappear from view shortly after they stop flowering.”
There are numerous woodland areas in the Washington DC area to search for spring wildflowers, including Theodore Roosevelt Island and Great Falls National Park. If you are willing to travel farther, Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway are great weekend destinations to hunt spring wildflowers.
I feel as giddy as diarist Dorothy Wordsworth (sister of poet William Wordsworth) who described a field of daffodils in her Grasmere Journal—“I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about & about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed & reeled & danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake . . .
“they looked so gay ever glancing every changing”Dorothy Wordsworth
I laugh too as I observe Rock Creek Park’s fairy flowers bursting out to sun themselves. A poet must have named these wildflowers: Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), Field Pennycress (Thlaspi arvense), Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), and Cut-Leaved Toothwort (Cardamine concatenata).
Bluebells reign as queen of this green kingdom. Initially, our group sees small patches of bluebells nestled among the grasses. This bulbous perennial plant produces multiple lampshade petals—pink and purple. The violet-blue flower sparkles like a sapphire.
DC’s Rock Creek Park is a native habitat where bluebells flourish in partial shade. This wild flower thrives under the cover of trees and shrubs. We see clusters of bluebells happily blooming under sweet gums, oaks, and sycamores. But my “aha moment” is witnessing a carpet of bluebells at DC’s Rock Creek Park. These bluish flowers wave their merry heads in the breeze. I could be in Provence, France, admiring a field of lavender. No plane trip required!
Another spring ephemeral we chase at DC’s Rock Creek Park is the trout lily (also known as yellow trout lily, or yellow dogtooth violet). Also native to the region, it is a species of perennial, colony-forming flowers.
The trout flower is a diminutive wildflower. I need to get on my knees to closely observe. Its striped leaf is multi-colored. The tiny yellow flower resembles a sliver of sunlight in the woods.
I see violets everywhere—under trees and by the creek. And contrary to belief, a violet doesn’t have to be blue. Indeed, a patch of sweet white violets at DC’s Rock Creek Park nestled together. The white violet symbolizes purity and chastity.
Perhaps not a well-known fact, violets are edible. Consider sprinkling them on a salad or soup as a garnish. Melanie said violet leaves and flowers contain high amounts of vitamin C and vitamin A. (Fun fact: Roses, daisies, and nasturtiums are also edible. Don’t forget to tell your children to eat their flowers!)
Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) is named after Colonial Virginia botanist John Clayton. It is a herbaceous perennial. But is also a vegetable. In my research on this wildflower, I discovered it is more commonly known as the “fairy spud.” Native in northeastern North America, spring beauty has tiny underground tubers that can be cooked just like potatoes.
It may be the definitive tater tot.Brooklyn Botanic Garden
Although we weren’t searching for star chickweed, I found a patch on our ramble in DC’s Rock Creek Park. This wildflower is a star literally! It boasts star-like flowers. It is very showy. There are two types of stems (flowering and non-flowering).
Finally, I must pay homage to the trillium. Its largess pales in comparison to the bluebells, which roll out a violet carpet in their woodland home.
But ahh to sniff a trillium then inhale its perfume. Lemon? Cinnamon? Ginger? How to describe this heady scent is mind-boggling. I just know the odor puts me in my mother’s kitchen. Inhaling deeply, I can smell her fruit pie baking in the oven. Why can’t they bottle trillium perfume? It would capture the essence of spring ephemerals for me.
About Rock Creek Park
DC’s Rock Creek Park is an urban park. The U.S. Congress established it in 1890 as a national park. Choukas-Bradley raves about the park’s significance to America: “When you walk among these trees, you can see when you leave trees alone since 1890, they really thrive.”
The park sprawls across the northwest quadrant of the city. This green oasis connects to major DC neighborhoods, including Georgetown, Kalorama, and Woodley Park.
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