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Spring Ephemerals

Posted on: September 7th, 2013 by sheriffsmeadow

The starflowers are everywhere.

In mid-May, along the blue trail at the Caroline Tuthill Preserve, the bright white blossoms of starflowers dapple the floor of the forest. Here, a starflower sprouts upward beside fallen maple leaves. From the emerald bed of a sphagnum bog, another starflower grows, a parasol for a courting frog. Like white ribbons on wooden pews, starflowers grace the sides of the path, growing next to bare oaks and ancient, gray-barked beetlebungs. Starflowers are sprinkled across the entire forest floor, right to the edges of the Sengekontacket salt marshes.

The starflower is a member of the Primrose family, and its Linnaean name is Trientalis borealis. The flower is lovely: white petals set among green leaves, with yellow anthers atop white stamens. Aside from its delicate beauty, the starflower is worth noting for the fact that its features appear in groups of seven. Seven petals, seven sepals, seven leaves and seven stamens make a starflower. Native bees pollenate these plants.

Starflowers are spring ephemerals. Spring ephemerals are native wildflowers of the woods. Such flowers blossom in the spring, and then are gone, fading into obscurity among the twigs and leaf litter of the forest floor. Spring ephemerals blossom in April, or in May or June, depending on the particular type of flower, and on the timing of the season of spring in a given region. Ephemerals take advantage of that brief interlude of spring sunlight in a forest of deciduous trees. The flowers bloom when sunlight shines directly upon the ground in the forest, just as the tree leaves are beginning to unfurl. The United States Botanic Garden, incidentally, has an excellent exhibit of photographs of the spring ephemerals of Shenandoah National Park. The photographs were taken by Jackie Bailey Liebovitz, and the photographs appear in a new book entitled Understory.

The best way to enjoy the ephemerals, though, is to take a walk and see them for oneself. I had my own experience with spring ephemerals in April. In April, my family visited Shenandoah National Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. By mid-April, spring had come to the valley floors below, and the redbud trees stood out, draping the roadsides in cascades of purple flowers. Yet up in the mountains, spring had not yet ascended, and the ephemerals – the white bloodroot, the yellow trout lily, and more – stood out among the Appalachian rocks and the black birches and the bare stems of stout red oaks.

We hiked among the ephemerals, descending the mountain trails to waterfalls in the valleys. We hiked on the Appalachian Trail, which runs along the mountain spine of this park. We hiked beside the trout lilies on the way down to Rapidan Camp, the trout fishing camp of President Herbert Hoover. We crossed streams on wet stepping stones, an experience where I, not being nimble, crossed last, with my children on the opposite bank urging me on, with “come on, Dad!” and “you can do it!” I had never had that experience before: where my children led me, and encouraged me, and lent me a helping hand. That was, perhaps, a sign of age, a foretaste of the future.

At the end of the hike and the end of each day we were blessedly winded, ready for dinner. The children hiked without complaint. It was only a two-day visit to the park, a fleeting trip, a brief respite from a hectic family schedule of school activities and practices and scout meetings and Sunday school. Yet the walks among the spring ephemerals made our trip, perhaps, the most enjoyable vacation we had ever taken.

Such enjoyment of being outdoors in the spring – smelling the lilacs on the sidewalk in Vineyard Haven, spotting the lady’s slippers at the Caroline Tuthill Preserve, walking amid starflowers in the gentle green of spring beside Sengekontacket Pond – makes one think about just what is really ephemeral. The starflower, for that matter, as delicate as it is, and as susceptible as it is to pernicious invasive plants, is a perennial plant. The seven-petaled blossom of the starflower disappears by summer, yet the plant persists. It grows beneath the surface of the ground, and spreads through underground rhizomes. The rhizomes store energy through the year, allowing the flowers to burst forth in spring beauty once May has returned to Martha’s Vineyard.

In a spring where the month of May may send gentle showers and warm breezes, but may also send forth tornadoes of deadly force and unthinkable destruction, one wonders, after all, just what is ephemeral? The very word “May” raises the question. What may happen? What may come?

For me, the starflowers are lovely, yet not truly ephemeral. The flowers do disappear, yet the plant itself thrives, and emerges again next spring. What is truly ephemeral is a carefree springtime hike with children by the trout lilies. What is truly ephemeral is a day spent in the out of doors, where everyone is happy. What is truly ephemeral is the sight of a child, skipping down the path, among the starflowers. The real spring ephemeral is childhood.

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