As the cruelest month gave way to May, I suddenly remembered that the spring wildflowers would be out. Here I’m not referring to those various violets, crocuses and daffodils that adorn suburban lawns, but to woodland flowers, those hidden from most of us, those that reveal themselves only to the ones who make a point to seek them out.
Our local 21st century resident Thoreau used to lead annual wildflower walks in the woods the first weekend in May. Although I attended more than a few of his other lectures on the geological and historical aspects of New England, I never got the chance to accompany him on the wildflower walk. He used to say that he never went for a walk in the woods and came home disappointed.
So after lunch I grabbed my camera, a set of binoculars and my field notebook, and set out for the woods. Half an hour’s drive brought me to the trailhead that marks the start of a path along which over fifty species of woodland wildflowers bloom each spring. I gathered my things off the seat, left the car on the shoulder of the road by the river and stepped into this veiled woodland sanctuary.
Immediately beyond the first glacial strewn boulders I glimpsed a stand of red trillium perched on the side of a small hill. These single stemmed plants mirror a threefold theme: three leaves and a central flower composed of two distinct types of petals, three of each type. Interspersed among the trillium I found beds of whit squirrel corn, their small white heart-shaped flowers suspended along delicate green shoots like freshly laundered miniature bloomers hung out to dry.
A few steps further along the trail brought me to a bed of Claytonia virginica, a sea of tiny white-petaled purple-veined flowers. Here too reposed numerous trout lilies, the single yellow flower suspended above the two mottled trout-shaped leaves that give the plant its name. I recognized a small clump of broad-leafed wild ginger plants nestled in the crevice of a rock, and searched for their solitary chocolate brown blossoms hidden between the two stems at each base.
Up ahead the forest floor flattened out into a wash of greenery, populated with lily of the valley, wood anemones, Solomon’s seal and false Solomon’s seal. Gingerly, I lifted the stalk of one plant to admire the tiny white bell-shaped flowers suspended along the central stalk. By summer’s end these blossoms would turn into dark blue berries.
Here and there, white-winged butterflies visited the various flowers, alighting on the delicate petals, eager to dip their curled straws into these miniature nectar pots. A number of foamflowers dotted the forest floor by the path. Here I happened upon the three-lobed leaf of the hepatica, thought to resemble the lobes of the human liver. In antiquity this plant was prized for the treatment of liver ailments, an example of the doctrine of signatures.
I came across the trunk of a fallen pine, stripped of its branches and covered with moss, its outer bark flaking off in a state of decay. The trunk lay parallel to the path. I found the adjacent tree from which this trunk had split still rising up to the canopy overhead.
The base of the fallen tree had rotted out, forming a natural hollow perhaps eight feet long, like the elongated bowl of a giant wooden spoon. Its walls were thickly padded with lemon-green moss; the well was half filled with cinnamon salt-and-pepper leaves. This depression housed clusters of white wood violets; the miniature petals perched atop delicate stalks filled the bed as though it were a natural planter.
Further along at a point where two dead trees had fallen crosswise against the trunk of a third, I glimpsed one solitary jack-in-the-pulpit taking a stand among the leaves, silently preparing his Sunday morning sermon.
The heavy pulsed rapping of a pileated woodpecker broke the afternoon stillness. I glanced at my watch. It had taken me almost two hours to walk half a mile along this forest path; yet when I turned to retrace my steps, I found myself back at the car in ten minutes. I realized that I had spent the first leg of my woodland excursion in Indian time, those moments when our sense of time dissipates as we experience the mystery of the forest, when it seems that time itself does not exist.
Like our resident Thoreau, who silently stepped out of time himself two summers past, I am pleased to report that I did not come home disappointed.
Copyright©2009 by Brian T. Maurer