Sunday, April 8, 2012

Working Among Wildflowers

Virginia Bluebells

One of the special privileges of my job as an ecologist is working outdoors, and one of the most special is walking through a forest full of flowers when the spring flora erupts into a dazzling display of diversity. Although I embrace all of my experiences with nature, including cold, wet trudges to research plots and hot, humid, mosquito-ridden data recordings, working among wildflowers on pleasant spring days is one of the greatest rewards.  This year's early spring coincided nicely with this week's trip to northeast Iowa to visit several state parks and nature preserves at the peak of the spring wildflower season.  After presenting a lecture at the Tallgrass Prairie Center in Cedar Falls, I visited George Wyth State Park, where I enjoyed one of the largest displays of Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica) I have ever seen:

While surveying research plots at White Pine Hollow State Preserve the next day with botanist Bill Watson, I was surrounded by uncountable numbers of Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginiana) as I hunched over tiny sampling frames to monitor changes in vegetation.

Spring Beauty
I noticed several small bees visiting the Claytonia flowers and managed after several attempts to photograph one.  I later learned from BugGuide that it was the Spring Beauty Bee, which specializes in visiting Spring Beauty flowers.  Amazing!

Spring Beauty Bee

While moving to new plots scattered across the big preserve, we hiked through acres and acres of False Rue Anemone (Isopyrum biternatum) dotting the forest floor with millions of bright white flowers.

Hiking far up Pine Hollow Creek, we arrived in the the northwest corner of the preserve.  On a hillside beyond our research plot, we spied a network of yellow streaks.  Finishing our work, we ambled over for a closer look and found thousands of plants of Marsh Marigold, each bursting with dozens of yellow flowers, filling a complex of spring runs emanating from a large seepage zone.

Marsh Marigold

Growing among the marigolds in the spring run habitat, we also found Meadow Horsetail (Equisetum pratense) in pockets of wet soil and liverworts on moist, mossy rocks.  

Meadow Horsetail

Pleased with our discovery of uncommon plants in such an interesting habitat, we wondered aloud if Dr. Robert Thorne, a famous Iowa botanist who had written the Flora of White Pine Hollow in 1964, had noted these species.  Having a copy of his article with me, I looked up his description for a  "shaded ravine... on a low, north-facing springy slope along Pine Hollow Creek in the northwestern corner of the reserve... [Within] it grow such rarities as Equisetum pratense... and Caltha palustris."  Thorne's collections here date back to 1954, nearly sixty years ago.  It was gratifying to know that the marigolds had survived the intervening decades and that we were now walking literally in the footsteps of that famous botanist.  Thorne was enamored with White Pine Hollow, writing with a scientist's subdued style, "I know of no comparable square-mile area in Iowa that can approach the reserve in the richness of its flora."  I know he would share our appreciation for the presence of beautiful natural areas and for the privilege of working among wildflowers.