May is an amazing month in the forest. Over the course of a few weeks, the forest floor becomes completely transformed by new growth. While in the upland neighborhoods the lawns are growing and flowers are beginning to bloom with a vengeance, the character of the woods is muted as it becomes a deep, green, place of refuge. The spring ephemerals have had their time in the sun, but now the forest canopy fills out, creating the shade needed for forest flora to survive. Most of the vernal pools are dry and hopefully the tadpoles grew legs and found their way to safe places.
Standout Bloomers: How to highlight May in the stream valley? Let's begin with what's blooming. The clear standouts of the May forest are the flowering Kalmia latifolia (Mountain Laurel) and Viburnum acerifolium (Mapleleaf Viburnum). Both flourish in the stream valley Oak-Beech/Heath Forest natural community, which occurs here on the upward north-facing slopes while spilling over into the floodplain in areas.
The delicate pinwheel-shaped blossoms of the Mountain Laurel herald their arrival for weeks before they open as the pointed flower buds develop and swell While in some natural communities the flowers are pale pink with streaks and dots on the petals, here in the Pimmit Run Stream Valley they are largely white with just a touch of the faintest pink within. This is as good a time as any to mention that all parts of the Mountain Laurel shrub are poisonous to cattle and humans. This probably explains why the deer leave them alone!
While the blossom of the Mapleleaf Viburnum may be the more modest of the two star May bloomers, it is special. It's flower demurely stands above the maple-shaped leaves and sometimes, when the light is just right, it casts a shadow on its own leaf. The Mapleleaf Viburnum is also special for being the larval host to the Spring Azure.
There are a few more interesting and fairly unusual bloomers I came across that are worth mentioning. The first is the blossom of the Medeola virginiana (Indian Cucumber), another member of the Oak-Beech/Heath Forest natural plant community. It can be seen in dense clusters on the north facing slopes above Pimmit Run, and this time of year its nodding yellow-green flowers appear on top of a single unbranched stem; with petals and sepals curving backward. The delicate flowers of the Indian Cucumber are exceptionally easy to overlook, but super rewarding upon sight. And this plant is edible -- the rootstalk resembles the taste of cucumber, hence the name.
Another unexpected bloom found on the floodplain floor was Sanicula canadensis (Canadian Black Snakeroot), a fairly rare herbaceous perennial. This, too, is easy to overlook because it blends in with all the green, but it's quite satisfying to find. The yellow flowers are like burrs and stand tall above the deeply toothed leaves. There are a variety of forms of Black Snakeroot that are distinguished by their leaves and number of buds and this is the likely form I saw, but it could also be Sanicula odorata (Clustered Black Snakeroot) or Sanicula marilandica (Sanicle). No matter, it was a cool find.
Other Cool Discoveries: I’ve become very familiar with the usual native plants in the stream valley and seeing something new generally stops me in my tracks. Sometimes its an invasive, but once in a while it’s a fairly unusual native plant. Here are a few that caused me to pause this month:
This one is a puzzler. It appeared right next to the stream and looks to be an oak of sorts -- possibly Quercus imbricaria (Shingle Oak) or Quercus laurifolia (Laurel Oak). Both are native to this area and found along stream valleys. But they are not typical here.
Impatiens capensis (Jewelweed) is not exactly rare, but it's a new sight for me in the stream valley. Also called touch-me-not due to the dispersal of seeds from ripe capsules, which burst open upon contact, The orange funnel-shaped flowers appear in July through fall so now I know where to look for them.
Another unusual find is Agrimony parvifolia (Swamp Agrimony). I came across at least two large clumps along the floodplain. This plant has long yellow raceme flowers in mid to late summer. Its a documented member of the Small Stream Floodplain Forest natural community, although relatively rare.
Lastly, I was pretty excited to experience multiple sightings of Dioscoria villosa (Wild Yam) both on the edge of the Oak-Beech/Heath Forest and along the floodplain. Wild Yam is a member of both plant communities but another not so common one. It might have been Dioscoria quarternata but the two are widely viewed as synonymous. Wild Yam is a gentle vine with heart shaped leaves and is widely sought after for its many medicinal uses.
Ferns. Ferns. Ferns: For so long Polystichum acrostichoides (Christmas Fern) has been the fern star of the valley by virtue of being evergreen. But it is now somewhat overshadowed by the deciduous ferns, which tower over it and offer up their wide variety of textures. Thelypteris noveboracensis (New York Fern) has spread across the floodplain floor and up the slopes of the Oak-Beech/Heath Forest. Phegopteris hexagonoptera (Broad Beech Fern) has largely replaced (thankfully) the invasive ephemeral carpet of Ficaria verna (Lesser Celandine) and offers up a glorious carpet along the floodplain floor, only occasionally interrupted by Chinese Wisteria and other invasives.
Those that cover the ground: Before I move on, just a word about the other forest groundcovers, those hard-working plants that don't scream out for attention yet do their part in nature. The standbys in the Basic Mesic Hardwood Forest and Floodplain areas include Actaea racemosa var. racemosa (Black Cohosh)- larval host of the Spring Azure and valued for medicinal purposes, Amphicarpaea bracteata (American Hog-Peanut) - a delicate vining plant that is larval host for silver-spotted skipper and northern cloudywing butterflies and has edible peanut roots, Circaea lutetiana (Enchanter's Nightshade), the many Carex spp., Parthenocissus quinquefolia (Virginia Creeper) - host to Sphinx Moths, Polygonatum biflorum (Solomon's Seal), and Eurybia divaricata (White Wood Aster) which should need no introduction. Together they form a 2-3 foot green carpet that provides cover and nourishment for wildlife and joy to humans.
Last but not least - the critters of May: Pollinator season is only just beginning, so bees and butterflies are still relatively few in number. However, I did come across a magnificent Ebony Jewelwing (Calopteryx maculata), a large damselfly that usually makes its home near shaded streams. The one pictured below appears to be a male, noted for solid black wings and iridescent body. Quite the set of eyes also.
I also came across a large cluster of Chicken in the Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus). This was so bright it could not be missed. Technically it is not a critter, rather, it is a fungus, but memorialized here due to its name and - taste. Chicken of the Woods is an edible mushroom that is said to taste like chicken and is considered a delicacy.
Last but not least, I had to check on the tadpole activity in the one remaining vernal pool in the stream valley floodplain with water and activity. Here it is - lots of different size tadpoles coexisting and busy trying to sprout legs before its too late!