Sunday, April 19, 2009

Spring Wildflowers: Their Moment in the Sun

On a walk this morning searching for two of my favorite signs of spring, I was immersed in flowers spouting and birds signing. But I was oh-for-two. Dang.

I was sauntering through Saunders Woods, a nature preserve managed by the Natural Lands Trust, looking to see where in spring’s parade we stand. And I wanted desperately to find two classic signs of spring, trillium (left), a classic wildflower, and warblers, the classic birds of spring.

Spring is an elegant procession of delirious natural acts: songbirds migrating through, wildflowers blossoming in sequence, frogs and salamanders mating in vernal pools. For me, the parade begins in February when skunk cabbage blooms in cold marshy areas, its purple hood heating and melting any ice in its way.

So today I’m standing in a carpet of lesser celandine, a beautiful but entirely alien flower that takes over forests and fields. But I’m also seeing early May apples poking their small umbrella-shaped leaves through the celandine. Trout lilies (right), a classic spring wildflower, have sent up trout-speckled leaves across the forest floor—after many years of patiently storing starches in its root, trout lilies have enough energy to finally make a flower. Happily, in a far corner of the preserve is a stand of trout lilies that have flowered, bright yellow flags in the processional.

Near the creek, I find—where it grows every year—blue cohosh, a tall but fragile-flowered plant with blue-tinted leaves and, much later, very blue berries. Virginia bluebells have popped, its pink buds opening into blue flowers. Bloodroot blossomed near the cohosh, a very rare, bright white flower with a reddish sap that Indians exploited as war paint.

And I’m looking for the Holy Grail, white trillium, one of the most beautiful, and in my Pennsylvania suburb, one of the rarest, spring wildflowers of all. After growing in Saunders Woods for decades (if not centuries), it seemed to have vanished in recent years, a victim of deer overbrowsing. Last year, I found some, startled by its discovery. This year, skunked. None. Nada. Nature does not always cooperate…

The forest floor is just a-blossom with these spring beauties because trees haven’t leafed out yet. The bare trees allow sunlight to strike and warm the forest floor, activating the flowers into their moment in the sun. They bloom, make seeds, photosynthesize, and send starches to their roots before leaves have totally shaded the ground-level. And when its dark and the sunlight blocked, these flowers die back, their ephemeral leaves vanishing into the humus, their rootstocks hanging on to next year, patiently, patiently, patiently waiting.

There is a tiny window of opportunity to see these babies. Blink, and the cohosh is dead. So I’m a lucky man: right place, right time for cohosh. But not for trillium. Not yet.

And the sound track of my flower hunt were all the birds were singing around me: titmice for days, flickers and red-bellied woodpeckers screaming, chickadees chanting their names, blue jays and crows yelling, the first wood thrush of the year, the first towhee, a chipping sparrow.

But I’ll confess to a fondness for warblers, the precious gems of the bird kingdom, rare flying jewels that also pass through here in a wonderfully orchestrated sequence of palm (right) and pine warblers early, blackpoll in the rear. Like the flowers, blink, and you have to wait a year to see them again. So I’m dutifully outdoors for the third consecutive April Sunday searching for warblers. And for the third Sunday, no warbler. Not yet.
Spring is nature on parade. To really see the show, you have to be out in it almost every day—tough to do. I came for trillium and warbler, and was instead feasting on trout lily and titmouse. Not a bad way to spend a Sunday morning.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Go Wild! Add Native Plants to Your Garden

As a beautiful spring day dawns and Earth Day approaches next week, it’s time to go wild! As director of the Lower Merion Conservancy, I want you to know about a great opportunity. We’re selling native plants for your garden, the plants that evolved to live in Pennsylvania and need less water and chemicals—green in BOTH senses of the word. They’re also great for songbirds and butterflies. Take butterflyweed, a stunning bright orange wildflower overflowing with nectar butterflies find irresistible and with leaves that Monarchs lay their eggs on, as it’s the host plant for this species. Plant butterflyweed, and you’ll grow a crop of butterflies too, adding more Monarchs to the world.

We’re offering Monarda and coral honeysuckle (two hummingbird magnets), plus shooting stars, great blue lobelia, Virginia bluebells, and so much more. Check it out at

Thank you!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Earth Days of Service

April 22nd marks the 39th anniversary of the first Earth Day, the green teach-in and landmark event that jump-started the modern environmental movement, giving birth to the EPA, a raft of environmental legislation--Endangered Species Act and new versions of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts---and a host of eco-nonprofits, like the Wilderness Society and Friends of the Earth.

Earth Day is important in my household. My career was forged in the fire of that first Earth Day, inspired by the news reports I was reading at the time as a seventh grader (I organized a litter clean-up for the park in the center of town.) My wife and I later met while both helping create Philadelphia’s 1990 celebration, when 120,000 revelers gathered in the city’s biggest park. So my life’s work comes from Earth Day 1970 and my family courtesy of the 1990 edition.

So it is without any attempt at objectivity that I make the following bold prediction: as environmental issues, pardon the pun, heat up, Earth Day will soon emerge as the first truly global secular holiday. One day, kids will have off for school on Earth Day.

And like Martin Luther King Day, it morphs into a service-oriented celebration, people gathering to plant trees, clear invasives, clean streams, rivers and beaches, spruce up parks, and more. And that service lasts a whole month—April sees the concept of an Earth Days of Service gathering steam.

In fact, the environmental groups of the Delaware Valley have begun placing their service-oriented events on the web site of the Greater Philadelphia Environmental Network. If you go to, you’ll see tons of Earth Day events for people across the region to join in, the Conservancy proudly standing with the Delaware Riverkeeper and Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve.

You can help the Schuylkill Center restore its trails, pull tires from the Perkiomen Creek, help start a wildflower meadow on Cobbs Creek, and remove Japanese knotweed from the Remington Road retention basin. Suddenly, greening the earth was never so much fun.

Next year marks the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, and with green-collar jobs and the green economy emerging as major stories—and one solution to the catastrophic economic collapse—expect to see the green holiday kicked up a couple of notches next year.

As for my group, the Lower Merion Conservancy, please do visit the Children’s Earth Day Forest on the weekend of April 25-26. As always, hundreds of students will have hand-built a Pennsylvania forest overflowing with artistic renditions of the plants and animals that live here: owls and opossums, deer and dragonflies, flowers and foxes.

So join me for a uniquely upbeat celebration of Earth Day or join any one of a million groups in the outdoors sometime this spring. And happy Earth Day.

Oh, and check out the guy in the 1970 photo above-- RIP, 1990, his sign reads. They honestly thought then we had only 20 years left before the Earth died....

...Which is eerily reminiscent of what people are saying today...