This spring has been very different from that of 2012. Last year, we had a long spell of warm weather in March and April with temperatures even reaching the 80s on three days, leading to early development of spring flowers and trees. Unfortunately, this was followed by an inch of snow in Buffalo on April 23 and 24 and a deep freeze on April 28 and 29 that seriously damaged fruit trees. The stone fruit crop – peaches, plums and cherries – was largely wiped out and apples were seriously diminished.
This April was more normal. Most high temperatures were in the 40s, 50s and 60s. Lows were in the 20s and 30s until the final three days of the month, when they rose to the low 50s. Snow fell on many mornings. As a result, spring wildflowers appeared later than usual.
But finally, on a lovely morning in late April, I met Joanne Schlegel and Laurie Baldwin at Counterfeiter’s Ledge east of Akron. They had agreed to show me some of this year’s early wildflowers.
Owned and monitored by the Western New York branch of Nature Conservancy, the sanctuary is located to the south of Bloomingdale Road midway between Scotland and Tesnow roads. It is bounded on all sides by private property and entry requires landowner permission. The best way to visit is with guides like mine representing the conservancy.
No one seems to know the source of the counterfeiters in the sanctuary title, but the ledge in that title derives from the shale cliff crossing the property that is a southern offshoot of the much-reduced Niagara Escarpment.
Our morning hike was a botanic delight. Much of it was through a mixed woodland of mostly maple and ash. The forest floor was carpeted with the mottled green leaves of trout-lilies, only some of the plants sporting drooping yellow flowers. Almost equally common were cut-leaved toothworts with their umbels of tiny white blooms. I confused the toothworts with spring beauties, only a few of which we found here, until I was taught that toothwort blossoms have four petals; spring beauties have five.
This illustrates my problem with identification of spring wildflowers. Many of these plants are ephemerals, that is, they appear only briefly while the trees are still leafless. This allows the sunlight to penetrate and nurture them through their brief annual appearance. In early May, when the foliage reduces that light, the plants die back and wait for next year’s two-to-three-week visit. As a result, each spring I find myself learning to identify some of these wildflowers during their brief display only to forget them by next time around.
Even with their brief show, however, too many of these wildflowers are scarfed up by deer. Instead of the preponderance of trilliums I used to see in such woodlands, we found only a few. Among them were a few red trilliums. This interesting plant has a long list of alternate names, among them wake-robin and stinking Benjamin; up close it smells like rotten meat. Like the Jack-in-the-Pulpit, it also produces calcium oxalate crystals, which make all parts a no-no for human consumption. Perhaps that is why it escapes deer attention as well.
We also found a variant form of the white trillium with a green stripe down the middle of each of its three petals. Joanne informed me that this is caused by a parasitic mycoplasma bacterium.
Additional species came thick and fast. There were patches of wild leeks and mandrakes and blue cohosh, the leeks exuding their onion smell, the cohosh’s six-petaled flowers not yet in evidence. Not ephemerals, these will mature, blossom and bear fruit later in the summer.
Among the other plants we found were wild ginger, purple cress, early meadowrue, squirrelcorn, Virginia waterleaf, bellwort, downy yellow violet, herb Robert, elderberry, plantain-leafed sedge and the shrubs spicebush and leatherwood.
A few days later, Cheryl Peluso kindly led me down into the deep shale-sided gorges of Chestnut Ridge Park to show me the eternal flame. This was my first visit to this interesting local feature and another delightful hike, but I was surprised to find only trout lilies in the surrounding woodlands. Spring had still not reached those glens.