Walking Washington DC

Hunting Spring Ephemerals in DC’s Rock Creek Park

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.

Bluebells_Rock Creek Park

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

Spring Ephemerals

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.

Spring Ephemerals

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.

Verily Laughed

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
DC's Rock Creek Park Wildflowers

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

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 bluebells
Bluebells

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!

Trout Lily

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. 

Trout Lily

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.

Violets

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.

Sweet White Violets

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!)

Violet, Common Blue

Spring Beauty

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
Spring Beauty

Star Chickweed

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).

Star Chickweed

Trillium

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.

Trillium

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.”

Creek near Boundary Bridge

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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  • Alma
    April 10, 2021 at 7:38 am

    Not a bad place to hunt for spring ephemerals! Lovely to see some of the flowers we plant in our gardens growing in the wild.

  • Caitlin palumbo
    April 10, 2021 at 8:19 am

    I love how you broke down the different flowers, so helpful! I would love to see some of them in DC!

    • Terri
      April 10, 2021 at 10:03 am

      I could only identify these wildflowers with confidence because I took the Audubon wildflower tour!

  • Sabine
    April 10, 2021 at 10:28 am

    What a lovely place to see the spring ephemerals. Love to see all the different flowers and all the spring colours.

    • Terri
      April 10, 2021 at 10:50 am

      It will become a new ritual each spring now for me to see the spring ephemerals at Boundary Bridge at Rock Creek Park!

  • Poonam
    April 10, 2021 at 10:36 am

    What a great guide. The bluebells are one of my favorites. Looks like a lovely place to visit.

    • Terri
      April 10, 2021 at 10:50 am

      My favorite is also the bluebell . . . especially a field of bluebells.

  • Krista
    April 10, 2021 at 12:01 pm

    Spring is a lovely time of the year to go on walks, especially to see all of the flowers in bloom. This area looks so pretty to visit!

    • Terri
      April 11, 2021 at 7:26 am

      Rock Creek Park is such a gem!

  • Sharyn
    April 10, 2021 at 9:17 pm

    What a beautiful park and with so many different plants to enjoy.

    • Terri
      April 11, 2021 at 7:26 am

      Rock Creek Park is a favorite retreat for Washingtonians. I love it.

  • lavi
    April 10, 2021 at 9:19 pm

    This park looks so beautiful! Love all the pretty flowers!

    • Terri
      April 11, 2021 at 7:27 am

      I am so glad you like the wildflowers. They are so lovely!

  • MagicandBliss
    April 11, 2021 at 9:55 am

    This park looks beautiful. I love how you’ve mentioned the names of the different flowers. The spring beauty does live up to its name. 😀

  • Denise
    April 11, 2021 at 10:17 am

    Something about wildflowers that always lifts me up. Great finds!

  • Carley
    April 11, 2021 at 2:32 pm

    So inspiring for spring 🙂 thanks for sharing, these are beautiful! Looking forward to beautiful weather soon.