Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Sunny St. Pat's Day

This was the first nice day we've had in a while, so I took advantage of it. I took off this morning to hunt wildflowers on one of the local greenway trails. The Northridge Trail goes nearly the entire length of the older residential area of Oak Ridge. I've only hiked sections of the 10-mile trail. Where I went today is great for wildflowers. The upper part of the trail is steep and dry. As it goes down to the creek below an amazing transformation takes place --- the ravine becomes green and loaded with wildflowers! The first one I saw was a Pachysandra (a.k.a. Allegheny Spurge). It is a very early bloomer, if you don't see it around the middle of March, you won't see it. The easiest way to find it is to look for the large, mottled leaves. The flowers are monoecious, meaning they have seperate male and female flowers on the same plant. Only the thick stamens of male flowers are visible in this photo. The female flowers are are pink and will develop on the lower part of the stalk.

When I got to the bottom of the ravine I saw several Virginia Spring Beauty plants in bloom. They have pretty, light pink petals on thin stems. There is also a Carolina Spring Beauty that blooms this time of the year. It is easy to tell the difference, it has larger, more rounded leaves. I think of a "V" (as in Virginia) being long and thin and a "C" (as in Carolina) being thick and round. Note the forked pistil and the yellow nectar guides on the close-up photo.

Next I saw a few Cut-leaf Toothwort (left) plants in bloom. They are another very common wildflower in the woods of east Tennessee. On the way down I saw carpets of Trout Lily leaves, but no flowers. I was surprised to see quite a few of them in bloom on the opposite side of the creek. Trout Lily (right) flowers are bright yellow with dark maroon stamens, they nod and often have upturned petals. When they bloom en masse, the lower hillside is covered in yellow. They get their common name from the mottled leaves that look somewhat like the skin of a trout.

I had hoped to find the tiny Harbinger-of-Spring (left) blooming on the east-facing side of the ravine. Sure enough, there they were! The plants are only about 3" - 4" tall with clusters of tiny white flowers with maroon stamens. They are related to carrots, parsley and Queen Anne's Lace. They get their name from the fact they are one of the first flowers to bloom in the spring. As I was heading back up the trail to leave, I saw one last wildflower, the Rue Anemone. (right)

Later I went to the University of Tennessee Arboretum here in Oak Ridge. The Saucer and Star Magnolias are at their peak right now, so the lower valley is so pretty with the pink and white flowered trees. The arboretum is not especially well-endowed with wildflowers since most of the trails are south or west-facing (north-facing slopes are the best), but I did find some Bluets (below) in bloom. These pretty little blue flowers normally have 4 petals, so I was surprised to find one with 5 petals. The next few weeks will have lots of wildflowers to enjoy!

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