Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Spring Ephemerals (Part 1 of 3)

I guess Solomon was having a bad day when he wrote Ecclesiastes: Everything is meaningless. Everything is merely chasing the wind. We live, we die, and life ain’t fair. Life is short and wearisome.

He finally emerged from his funk by the end of his book, but he was right about one thing – life is short. And, it seems to me, the older we get, the shorter life becomes – a sentence that will make no sense to anyone under 30 and perfect sense to anyone over 50.

I recall Neil Diamond’s song from the early 70’s called “Done Too Soon.” He had the same message: We have sweated beneath the same sun, looked up at wonder at the same moon, and wept when it was all done, for being done too soon.

So life is short for us humans, but even shorter for the spring ephemerals growing in the soil of the mountains. Spring ephemerals? Yes, from the Greek word “ephemeros” meaning transitory or short-lived.

There are many transitions and cycles in nature. For instance, in the long run, we can watch an abandoned field fill up with briers and weeds, to be followed by cedar trees (the “pioneer” species in this part of the country), and eventually (decades later) by hardwoods such as oak, hickory, and maple. Or, we can watch beavers dam a creek, creating a pond, which ultimately fills with dirt and becomes a meadow. Shorter, quicker transitions are a bit more visible to us, the most obvious being the greening and budding of spring or the colors of fall ending in the browns and grays of bare trees.

But within these cycles are smaller transitions, such as the rise and fall of spring ephemerals. Every spring in the Smoky Mountains there is a window of opportunity, roughly corresponding to the month of April, in which the sun and warming temperatures heat the ground enough to call forth the sun-loving wildflowers, starting with Spring Beauties, Hepatica, and Bloodroot. Because these are sun-loving plants, they have to move quickly and confidently. No distractions or dilly-dallying. They must bloom and bear seeds in those few weeks in which the temperatures are rising and early spring is in the air, but before the leaves on the trees have fully emerged to block out the sun, creating the deep, dark, shady woods that we associate with late spring and summer. Shade is fine for the shade-loving plants of summer forests, but not for the spring ephemerals of April. They love the sunshine and so must get on with their lives before the deep shade overwhelms their world. It’s a microcosmic version of climate change.

So, April is the month of these spring ephemerals. And there are dozens of them that come and go in rapid succession: Spring Beauties, Hepatica, Bloodroot, Trout Lilies, Phacelia, Bishops Cap, Trilliums, Wild Geraniums, Little Brown Jugs, Lady’s Slippers. Plus a few dozen others. They come and go in wave after wave, ebbing and flowing, as relentless as the ocean swells, as varied as a fireworks show. It’s quite a performance.

Dwarf Crested Iris

A friend of mine once asked me if I really liked “all that wildflower stuff.” I had a momentary case of male insecurity, but then told him that it’s more than the flowers themselves. It’s really the fact that I feel the need to understand what’s going on around me in the natural world. So I pay attention to things like constellations in the night sky; the phases of the moon; the nesting of Peregrine Falcons and the migration of warblers; three species of trout and the insects they eat; the blooming of Mountain Laurel in May and Rhododendron in June and July; the return of Chimney Swifts in May; and wildflowers in April. Plus, the return of the wildflowers is a sign that spring really is at hand, and I’ve survived another winter.

Little Brown Jug
(the "jugs" are the flowers -- not pretty, but very unique)

My two favorite places for spring wildflowers in the Smokies are Fort Harry Falls and Porters Creek. Fort Harry is a south and west facing ravine between the Chimneys picnic area and the Chimneys trailhead. (It’s the paved parking area on the left as you go up Newfound Gap Road, before you get to the tunnel just below the Chimneys trailhead. There’s also a nice waterfall about 100 yards from the road, up the small creek.)  I start looking in mid-March for Spring Beauties and Hepatica because this little valley gets a lot of sun and warms earlier than just about any other easily-accessible spot in the park. When I see these wildflowers, I know that Spring now has the upper hand over its old nemesis Winter. Winter will throw a few more good punches before the fight is over, but those punches will get weaker and weaker as March becomes April. Spring will not be defeated.

But the real show – one of the best in the park – is Porters Creek. [To be continued.]