Wildflowers, now springing, can tame the soul

Visit to a state park, even with snow on the ground, can be a treat

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Here is a sure sign spring is here: Wildflowers are blooming.

"We have an absolute banquet of wildflowers in Western Pennsylvania," said Phyllis Monk of Upper St. Clair.

Mrs. Monk and Mary Joy Haywood, professor emeritus at Carlow University, co-authored the book "Wildflowers of Pennsylvania" in which they documented 615 of the 1,200 species that grow in the state. Both are honorary members of the Botanical Society of Western Pennsylvania, having served as president and vice president, respectively.

Ms. Haywood attributed the abundance of our wildflowers to the variety of soil types, topography and weather zones here.

One of the earliest to make an appearance is snow trillium, which generally comes out in March and is one of few species that will bloom in snow.

"There are some wildflowers that people just never see because they hardly ever go out with their coat, hat and gloves in the snow to look for them," she said. "To find one of those little plants poking up through the snow ... is a treat."

Snow trillium is native to southwestern Pennsylvania, where it grows on north-facing hillsides that get more sunlight. Mrs. Monk said it is worth the effort to view, but advised people to do it quickly because soon the flowers will retreat.

Skunk cabbage is another species of wildflower that blooms through the snow. Ms. Haywood called it a very unusual plant. The inside of the flower is a balmy 72 degrees, where insects reside and pollinate the flower.

Another early bloomer is the trout lily, which typically appears in mid-April, around the time of the traditional opening day of trout season in most Pennsylvania counties.

"That is a wild coincidence," Mrs. Monk said.

The flower's name is actually derived from a reddish mottling that appears in the shape of a trout on the foliage of the plant. It is also known as dog's-tooth violet, a name Mrs. Monk finds disagreeable.

"It's not a violet," she said. "It's a lily."

Bunches of little yellow flowers called coltsfoot, found blooming along roadsides, are also a sign of early spring.

Other flowers to look for are Virginia bluebells, bloodroot, Dutchmen's breeches and harbingers of spring.

"There are endless numbers that are going to start blooming very quickly," Ms. Haywood said.

Peak season for spring wildflowers runs from late April through early May. Another entirely different display occurs in late September, when asters and late orchids appear. Mrs. Monk said plenty of wildflowers bloom in between these two peaks, but with less variety and abundance.

To view wildflowers, a trip beyond the front door is necessary. Mrs. Monk likened most yards to botanical deserts because of the treatments and weed killers that are applied to ensure a lush, green lawn.

"One person's weed is another person's rare plant," she said.

Since disturbed environments do not accommodate wildflowers, the best place to find them is in forests and parks where their habitats remain relatively intact.

"They are remarkably well-suited to where they grow," Mrs. Monk said. "Survival of the fittest is not just true of animals but also of plants."

The biggest threats wildflowers face, she said, are being picked or transplanted. The complex formula of soils and fungus that they require is not easily duplicated, so most don't survive the transplanting process.

"That's a fear," Ms. Haywood said. "But I think it's more important to educate people on what wildflowers are, and to teach them so that they don't do that."

Pennsylvania wildflowers are a rich and wonderful resource that Ms. Haywood said can go unnoticed. She encouraged people to get out and enjoy them this spring, but made this plea: "Look, don't touch. Photograph, record, enjoy, but don't pick."


Shannon M. Nass, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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