A walk in the WILD

Focus On Wildflowers

Plants: Take to the nature trails to enjoy Maryland's abundant botanical beauty.

March 25, 2001|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A stiff breeze flattens the wildflower meadow at Adkins Arboretum in Caroline County and whistles past my ears. But as arboretum director Ellie Altman and I enter the woods, everything seems hushed.

In the cloistered interior, the tall oaks and sweet gums creak and shush as they sway overhead in the wind, and I can hear the twitch of animals through the rattlesnake fern. The arboretum, 400 acres of meadow and woods that meander along the Tuckahoe River, is filled with native wildflowers -- skunk cabbage, trout lily, bloodroot and love-lies-bleeding. Altman stops near a signpost on the arboretum's self-guided tour to point out a pair of newly emerged burgundy leaves.

"It's a cranefly," she says. "Tipularia discolor." She crouches down to gently turn over one striated leaf, revealing a brilliant purple underside. "It's a native orchid."

Further along the broad trail, not far from a magnificent white oak, there is a little clutch of Dutchman's breeches, the blooms hung along the stem like tiny upside-down pantaloons.

Although the Chesapeake watershed was once filled with wildflowers, development has crowded out vast chunks of habitat. But at protected places like Adkins, near Ridgely, we can still see the wildflowers that were once abundant here -- Turk's-cap lily, enchanter's nightshade, lady-slipper, wild columbine, wild orchids, lousewort and fleabane. From early March when harbinger-of-spring (Erigenia bulbosa) first opens delicate snowflake-like blossoms, through September and October when orange coneflower (Echinacea) and the yellow spires of goldenrod (Solidago virgaurea) light up the landscape, our undeveloped spaces are blooming. Fortunately, there are scores of wildflower walks -- guided and unguided -- that enable us to enjoy this botanical extravaganza around the region.

Most state parks and arboretums have wildflower trails, as do nonprofits including Oregon Ridge Nature Center and Irvine Nature Center. For example, the Anita C. Leight Estuary Center in Harford County, 600 acres of marshy bottomland and upland forest, offers unguided walks virtually year-round with one guided walk in early spring. "We have wonderful pink lady-slippers, violets, spring beauties, trout lilies, wild azalea and mountain laurel," says Heather Helm, the center's director.

"Each organization is a little bit different," notes Sam Jones, secretary of the Maryland Native Plant Society. "Some are more into botany and plant identification. Some only go to wild or natural sites. Some such as Sierra Club are mostly interested in hiking."

Marion Lobstein, co-author with Cristol Fleming and Barbara Tufty of "Finding Wildflowers in the Washington Baltimore Area" (Johns Hopkins Press, 1995, $15.95), has been guiding wildflower walks for the Smithsonian Institution for 18 years. She leads tours at a variety of sites, but her favorite is Thompson Wildlife Management Area, a state game preserve near Front Royal, Va.

"It's one of the most spectacular sites in the entire mid-Atlantic," Lobstein says. "At the end of April and early May, there are 20 million white-flowered trilliums (Trillium grandiflorum) that carpet the woods."

During walks, Lobstein also touches on plants' medicinal and edible uses both past and present, a connection occasionally hinted at in wildflowers' evocative names. For example, lungwort (Pulmonaria) was used to treat respiratory illnesses. Both Native Americans and colonists used skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) to relieve cramps, wild ginger (Asarum) for upset stomach, and the ubiquitous dandelion (Taraxacum) as a general tonic and a laxative.

Interestingly, modern science has proved that there are solid chemical bases for many medicinal uses. Dandelion, still used in salad and wine, contains vitamin A, ascorbic acid, calcium and potassium. Bloodroot, whose blood-red rhizome was once used by Native Americans for everything from war paint to antiseptic and anesthetic, is still used today in Viadent toothpaste.

People seek wildflowers predominantly in spring, but there are walks available in all but the dead of winter.

"I think Assateague is prettiest in the fall," says Denise McNamara, naturalist at Assateague State Park, where the best viewing is along canoe trails. "The island comes alive in color. The Salicornia (saltwort) is crimson, and the Spartina (salt marsh hay) is gold tinged with rose. There is goldenrod, which is covered all over with monarch butterflies in September; cattail; prickly pear; beach heather; spurge; and the groundsel tree, which is very fragrant then and very pretty with a white fuzzy flower."

"Soldiers Delight in Patapsco State Park is home to at least one plant -- the fringed gentian -- that's found nowhere else in the state and it only blooms in the fall," says Leigh Barnes, president of the Horticultural Society of Maryland.

It's crucial to leave all plants, flowers, and seeds in place since many are endangered. For those inspired to include these plants in their own landscapes, there are nurseries and garden centers that sell natives and cultivated wildflowers. Lists are available through nature centers, arboretums and plant societies.

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