By Cara Lee and Nadia Steinzor
hoots of green grass. Birdsong. The scent of moist earth. There are many signs of spring, and we await them all with anticipation. But it is when woodland wildflowers emerge — stretching toward the sun, dotting the landscape with color — that we know for sure a new season has arrived. As spring unfolds, it is well worth timing a visit to the Shawangunks to see different wildflowers as they come into bloom.
Red Trillium is among the first on the scene, appearing in the first three weeks of April. This member of the lily family has one richly colored, nodding flower above three leaves. Trilliums are generally found in moist spots in the forest, where dappled sunlight shines through trees. Red Trillium is also called "Stinking Benjamin" due to an odor that can sometimes be detected. It's best to use only your nose and your eyes to enjoy this flower, because picking one can cause years of damage to the plant — the leaves close to the flower produce the food that the plant needs to grow and are slow to recover once disturbed.
Other showy flowers appear from mid-May through early June, including Pink and Yellow Ladyslippers. These orchids have a curled, drooping flower that is in fact the shape of a slipper, surrounded by large green leaves that grow close to the ground. They are found in rocky areas, where the soil is thin and dry. Like Trillium, they grow best where the tree canopy is thin and light falls on the forest floor.
New York State considers Ladyslippers to be "exploitably vulnerable," which means that their very survival as a species could be threatened in the near future if current levels of collecting (as well as browsing by deer) continue. It is also illegal to pick them on state-owned land like Minnewaska State Park Preserve — a good reason to take only pictures and touch only with your eyes! A great place to do so is the northern end of Mohonk Preserve, on hikes that start from the Spring Farm Trailhead.
Splendor in the Shrubs
Come mid-June, woods in the Shawangunks are full of frothy clouds of pink and white blossoms. Native Mountain Laurel offers dazzling displays of flowers, set off by the plant's deep green leaves or when viewed with a backdrop of rocky cliffs. Mountain Laurel is an evergreen shrub closely related to rhododendron and is cherished by many gardeners. Its five-sided, star-shaped flower looks like a tiny parasol. Ten stamen tips, which carry the flower's pollen, are buried in "pockets" in the flower, completing the illusion of a small umbrella. Brushed by a bee or other insect, these spring-loaded little ribs fling pollen out of the flower in a mini-explosion.
Mountain Laurel thrives in acid soils and grows near other natural icons of the Shawangunks, including pitch pines, oaks, and blueberries. Mountain Laurel's resinous leaves burn hot during fires, leaving its stems charred and bare — but then bright green shoots emerge from the root-mass within days, making laurel stands more robust than ever. Because Mountain Laurel is toxic to white-tailed deer if eaten in large amounts, it is left alone enough to be the most abundant shrub in the forest. This is lucky for visitors to the ridge, as Mountain Laurel is classified in New York State as vulnerable and can be hard to find elsewhere.
Rhodora, an equally lovely sight to behold, is even less common. It boasts spidery, purplish flowers and can be found in wetland areas high in the Shawangunk Ridge. It is most abundant between Lake Maratanza at Sam's Point and Lake Awosting at Minnewaska, particularly along the carriage roads. Flowers open in mid-June, before the leaves emerge, creating a splash of eye-catching color against a twiggy grey background. No wonder poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1839:
Rhodora! If the sages ask thee why
Signs of the weather
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky
Tell them, dear, that if eyes were made for seeing
Then Beauty is its own excuse
For centuries, flowers have been inspiring not only poets, but also nature lovers, conservationists, and residents and visitors on the ridge and beyond. Two early spring flowers prove that even as the natural world changes, it always provides us with beauty and diversity.
Bloodroot has a single, large leaf and white petals surrounding a golden yellow center. It thrives in sunny woods near streams, and although it is usually found in stands, plants may grow alone. Also called Indian Paint because of its orange-red sap, this flower was valued by early inhabitants of the ridge and many other places as a paint and dye.
Hepatica makes up for its small size by spreading widely across the ground. It has leathery, evergreen, purplish leaves and fragrant white, pink, or lavender flowers. Hepatica has had historic importance as a medicinal plant.
The bloom times of these two beauties are largely weather-dependent, and have been shifting. Since 1896, daily weather conditions have been recorded at the Mohonk Lake Cooperative Weather Station — now operated by the Mohonk Preserve — providing a long, consistent record that, when combined with field observations, helps us understand changes in many plant and animal species. We know that compared to the 1930s, Bloodroot now blooms about 14 days earlier and Hepatica about 20 days earlier, with both now blooming right around April 15.
That these and many other flowers continue to grow in the Shawangunks is a testament to the importance of having a protected landscape where nature can still take its course over time — sheltering native plants large and small, rare and common, and always beautiful to behold.
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