The narrow window of time between the short, sometimes snowy, days of winter and when leaves emerge on deciduous trees is a busy one. The days warm as the sun climbs higher in the sky and its warmth penetrates to the forest floor and heats the soil. The warming ground triggers a host of hidden life, particularly the ephemeral, or short-lived, wildflowers and their pollinators.
During most of the year we see no sign of spring wildflowers—by summer they have set seed and the leaves have desiccated. In winter only varying shades of brown cover the ground. All that exist are small bulbs and corms buried a few inches below the surface. But in April and May the forest floor erupts into a colorful display of flowers, complimented by bright and vocal birds.
The leaves emerge first, prompted by the warming ground. Within a few days flowers appear in wait for long-tongued bees, moths, and other insects to pollinate them. Many of the flowers are white, though yellows, pinks, and reds also occur. Typical species around the Fork include: Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica); Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria); Celandine poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum); Trout lily (Erythronium albidum); Trillium (Trillium sp.); Twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla); Bloodroot (Sanguinaria Canadensis); Cutleaf toothwort (Dentaria laciniata); and Dwarf Larkspur (Delphinium tricorne).
All of these plants grow best in the dappled sunlight beneath bare trees. They prefer moist, rich soil with decaying leaves. The limestone soils of Kentucky are ideal. The only place to find these harbingers-of-spring is in the upland deciduous forests. Cedar groves are too dark, and as old agricultural lands they do not yet contain rootstocks or seeds of these plants. In grasslands there is too much competition from the sod-forming perennial grasses.
There are several places around the Fork to observe spring ephemerals. Steep slopes rising from the bottomlands are particularly good. While most of the other lands have historically been used for agriculture and are now covered in red cedar (or other successional plants), the steep slopes, for the most part, have always been forested. They are not old growth—at times trees have been cut, but rarely have the slopes been cleared and the land was never tilled. This fortunate circumstance allowed the spring flowers to hang-on. The presence of spring flowers indicates that the ground has not been severely disturbed.
Today the forest floor of these steep slopes is carpeted in flowers. Most of the species are toxic or otherwise unpalatable to herbivores allowing them to persist in a land of many deer. But a new invader has arrived: Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata). This exotic plant infests forest understories—out-competing native flowers—and it changes the soil chemistry limiting the growth of trees. Garlic mustard is beginning to invade some of the wildflower locations around the Fork. It will take the diligent work of many people to keep the charismatic spring flora blooming for years to come.