FAIRFIELD COUNTY, Conn. -- Look no farther than to Northern Westchester County in New York to find one of our leading experts on wildflowers of the Northeast - Carol Gracie. A naturalist, photographer and author of two books on native wildflowers, Gracie also enjoyed a 30-year career at the New York Botanical Garden.
This spring I interviewed Gracie at her home and on a hike in nearby Connecticut, where we searched for native wildflowers. Our quest was focused on spring ephemerals – those fleeting native woodland plants that emerge in the spring, die back in the summer, and then re-emerge in the following spring. Our native spring ephemerals include plants such as Hepaticas, Squirrel Corn, Dutchman’s Breeches, Trout Lily, Spring Beauty, Trilliums and others.
As we observed numerous bees, butterflies and moths foraging along our path, we witnessed firsthand the importance of these early spring-bloomers to our local environment. A bumblebee queen helped to underscore the point as she hung upside down from a tooth-shaped flower of Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria). She was foraging on this particular plant, as she has evolved to do.
Gracie explained that bumblebee queens overwinter in a solitary, dormant state, already mated. They emerge in the spring ready to start a new colony, hungry for a food source to fuel their mission. In our local ecosystems, bumble bee queens have evolved with the spring ephemeral, Dutchman’s Breeches. The queens emerge from their winter nap, just when Dutchman’s Breeches is in flower, providing the bees with nectar as an energy source and pollen as a protein source - critical for brood-rearing.
Another plant-animal interaction that we observed was between Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) and small andrenid bees. Spring Beauties are one of our earliest blooming plants, quite petite with delicate five-petaled pink- and white-striped flowers. Those stripes actually serve as nectar guides to andrenid bees, the most common bee visitors to the flowers. Andrenid bees have evolved closely with Spring Beauty, which serves almost exclusively as their primary nectar and pollen source. As Spring Beauties vanish from our landscapes, so do their pollinators.
Many of our spring ephemerals are disappearing as development and deer pressure increase. You can include these plants in your own landscape, and while doing so, support many of our native pollinators. Since ephemerals die back to the ground in the summer, you can plant later blooming native plants in the same area – providing both you and Mother Nature with a succession of bloom.
To learn more about spring wildflowers, view my video interviews with Carol Gracie at www.ecobeneficial.com. You can also enter a random drawing to win a copy of Gracie’s latest book: "Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History," through July 4, (courtesy of Carol Gracie and Princeton University Press).
Kim Eierman, a resident of Bronxville, is an environmental horticulturist and Founder of EcoBeneficial! When she is not speaking, writing, or consulting about ecological landscapes, she teaches at the New York Botanical Garden, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, The Native Plant Center and Rutgers Home Gardeners School.