Oh for a harbinger-of-spring! Or a snow trillium. We'll even settle for a skunk cabbage.
On a wintry Wednesday, I wander Rostraver's Cedar Creek Park with botanists Bill Paxton and Barry Poglein, looking for wildflowers whose early spring bloom signals that winter is finally winding down.
They suggested we hunt in this Westmoreland County park because they'd seen all three plants in past years in this wooded lowland walled in by steep slopes. In the 1800s, this area was home to a sawmill, a stone schoolhouse and a community of European immigrants who brought memories and sometimes a few seeds to their new homeland. The schoolhouse and a bit of the mill trace remain -- mossy stones channeling water to the creek -- and peeping out from under brown leaves are a few tiny green immigrants, mingling with the natives in the cold, white sunlight.
Star of Bethlehem, named for its starlike flower, won't bloom for another month or so, both here and in its native Europe and parts of the Mideast, but Mr. Poglein finds a couple all the same. The former art teacher from New Florence, Indiana County, is good at that, recording native orchids and other wildflowers sometimes not seen in Indiana, Greene or Westmoreland counties for a century or more. It's the reason Mr. Paxton, a retired forester, landscape designer and college professor from Latrobe, asked him along. Harbinger-of-spring and snow trillium are rarely seen nowadays; skunk cabbage is very common.
Walking with the two men is a little like playing "I Spy" with two brothers born too close. Each tries to one-up the other, calling out the names of plants the moment he sees them. "Good eye," the other says a little grudgingly.
"I'm bound and determined to find skunk cabbage before you do," Mr. Paxton says.
Midway down the trail, he suddenly stops and faces us, arms raised triumphantly, a proud smile on his 78-year-old face. He points to a minuscule green stem supporting a modest white ball that barely qualifies as a flower.
"Taa daaa -- harbinger-of-spring!" he proclaims.
"Show me!" Mr. Poglein demands, bending to confirm it. Rookie botanists sometimes mistake hairy bittercress for this native wildflower, they say.
"It wasn't just my good eye," Mr. Paxton admits. "I knew there was some here" from past visits.
Continuing on, the men take turns identifying spring beauty, Christmas, wood and grape ferns, wild Bergamot and Hepatica, whose lobed leaves resemble a liver. What's so impressive about those IDs is that only the Hepatica had flowered. They know plants simply by the shape of their leaves.
Only one small crop of greenery baffles them. The two men agree the shoots look a little like snowdrops, but they weren't blooming. This long cold snap has delayed some spring blooms, they say, but Galanthus isn't one of them.
Mr. Paxton, who has taught biology, also recognizes the song of the phoebe, a migratory bird that builds mud nests beneath stony cliffs jutting out from the hillsides.
"She's back a little early," he says.
In the 1970s, Mr. Paxton helped design the footbridges that cross the creek in the park. As we head for a steep hillside path where we hope to find snow trillium, he rests on a bench next to one of his bridges.
"I'll yell when I find skunk cabbage," Mr. Poglein teases.
"If I find a four-leafed snow trillium, you'll see him run up that trail."
That would an incredible find, since trillium gets its name from its three leaves and three petals. We're beginning to wonder if we'll see even the three-petaled variety as we climb higher and higher. Then I spy three 2-inch petals hugging the brown leaf-covered slope. Mr. Poglein points to another and another. We see dozens, maybe hundreds of a flower some people have never seen. Mr. Paxton looks a little forlorn when we return and describe our find.
As we head back to the car, both men scan the ground looking for their last quarry. In one swampy area, Mr. Poglein brightens for a moment, then shakes his head.
"Just golden saxifrage," he grumbles.
"I can't believe we didn't see any skunk cabbage."
Kevin Kirkland: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1978. First Published April 6, 2013 4:00 AM