Monday, March 4, 2013

Hepatica and Hope (Part 5 of 5)

After watching the ice melt at Fort Harry Falls, I walked back to my truck, thinking about my visit here last summer and how different this valley looks in the winter and how it might look in the thaw of spring. This small valley should be prime wildflower habitat, although I could be wrong. In April when the initial explosion of wildflowers hits the lower and mid elevations of the park, the distribution of wildflowers seems, to me, to be almost random. For example, you can drive up the Greenbrier road and see a few violets or foam flowers scattered along the roadside, then suddenly you’ll encounter a patch of bloodroot that will take your breath away. Why these bloodroots don’t appear all along the roadside is a mystery to me. The shade, slope, and soil all look like prime habitat, yet the bloodroots show up in just that one spot. Or, a trail that looks to me like ideal wildflower habitat may be remarkably unremarkable during peak wildflower season, for reasons known only to God and botanists.

 Just as these thoughts had finished crossing the synapses of my brain, I stuck the end of my walking stick under a small, rock ledge, and I saw a flash of green. I pushed the thin layer of snow away and saw the very distinctive, three lobes of a Hepatica – one of my favorite wildflowers. I have a warm spot in my heart for Hepatica because my mother used to speak of them as one of her favorite flowers when she was a young girl growing up in Depression-era, northern Ohio. (That was only a couple of generations ago, but it seems like dozens because it was a time when kids actually noticed wildflowers and even knew their names.) She loved them because they are one of the earliest-blooming wildflowers. They make their white-pink appearance in early spring, while the weather is mostly cold but gives an occasional glimpse of the warm weather that is yet to come. In God’s list of virtues, I’d identify Hepatica with Hope. They are reminders that resurrections happen and that earth’s annual resurrection is just days away.

 The poet Robert Frost once wrote of a wasted, dying man who had “nothing to look backward to with pride and nothing to look forward to with hope.” Hepatica is just the opposite. It’s a promise of hope that the green warmth of spring will soon arrive, it’s a reminder of the sensuous pleasures of past springs, and it’s a sign of pride in making it through yet another winter. So because of my mother and because of the hope of spring, I love Hepatica. It also happens to be one of the few wildflowers that I can identify just by its leaves. They are so distinctive that even a guy like me who suffers from wildflower amnesia every spring – in April I have to start almost from scratch with my wildflower book in hand – knows a Hepatica when he sees one, even without its bloom.
The distinctive leaf of Hepatica

 In a typical year, I don’t see many Hepaticas in bloom. They aren’t rare, but they bloom in March or early April, so early that most of us aren’t yet thinking about wildflowers. The real wildflower show peaks a few weeks later, in mid-April. That’s when Phyllis and I will spend a few extra days in the Smokies walking through some of our favorite spots, looking for Trilliums, Trout Lilies, or Bluets. By then, the Hepaticas are fading, and spring is bustin’ out all over. When I do see Hepaticas in bloom, it’s usually accidental. That is, we get some warm days as early March slides into late March, and that gets my blood flowing again. That seems to be when the Hepaticas’ blood gets flowing, too. We both make our appearance in the mountain valleys at about the same time. We aren’t looking for each other, but we find each other nonetheless. 
Where There's Hepatica, There's Hope
 So now I have another special, secret spot – a patch of soil under a rock by an unnamed creek accessible via an unassuming parking lot on the main road through the Smokies. I’ll be back in a few weeks, when March begins acting less like February and more like April, looking not only for water falling over a cliff but also for a small, white-pink sign of hope that earth’s annual resurrection is just around the corner, and the Hepaticas and I will find each other once again.