Small Flowers Worth a Closer Look Along Fall Creek

Last Saturday (April 7), Nancy Bray and I headed east to the Fall Creek Trail to enjoy the dry day and early flowers. I am very lucky to live so close to this beautiful 14-mile trail that follows along Fall Creek through stunning old-growth forest. It might seem a poor choice to take advantage of the sunny day, but with the deciduous trees not yet leafed out and a number of now-open burned areas, we enjoyed the sun (while it lasted) and even saw one butterfly, an anglewing, fluttering about.

The actual flowers of skunk cabbage are quite small. Each has four yellow-green petals pressed hard against the spathe and four protruding anthers.

Our first stop was to admire one of the many small roadside swamps lit up by the bright yellow spathes of skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus). With the sunlight behind them, they look lit from within, giving rise to another name: swamp lantern. I have always been interested in fragrant plants, and I can’t help but pester anyone I’m with to smell different flowers. It’s always interesting to find out how different everyone’s sense of smell is. So I had to see what Nancy thought of the fragrance of the skunk cabbage flower. It is nothing like that of the skunky-smelling leaves. She agreed that it was pleasant.

Another fragrant plant all along the wet roadsides this time of year is coltsfoot (Petasites frigidus). I’ve always thought its unusual scent reminiscent of menthol. Someone recently suggested vanilla, and I think I can smell that as well. Lately, I have been looking more carefully at the variety of tiny florets in composites. Coltsfoot flower heads are either male or female. The males are composed mainly of disk florets and may or may not have any ray florets. The females have quite a few ray florets with only a few disk florets. I’d never noticed this before.

Early bloomers attract a lot of pollinators. Left, a gorgeous moth nectars on male coltsfoot flower heads. The purple in the center of the starry disk floret is the tube formed by the fused stamens. Right, a bee enjoys female florets with their long, protruding, slightly two-parted styles. Note also the abundance of disk florets on the left. The right flower heads are smaller with only a few disk florets.

Perfect in their symmetry, the tiny flowers of fetid adder’s tongue are well worth a closer look.

The main reason I like to check out the Fall Creek Trail in early April is to see fetid adder’s tongue (Scoliopus hallii). For some reason, seeing this plant never fails to thrill me. Its two large leaves sparkle in the light. While the tiny, brownish flowers are decidedly un-showy, they more than make up for that with their sculptural structure. The three maroon-streaked sepals are reflexed when mature and alternate with three narrow, upright petals. The conspicuous dark red ovary is topped with a three-parted curved stigma. Three stamens fill out this little gem. I’d read that its odor was unpleasant (fetid) to attract flies, but we found it to be pleasant, if not very strong. I doubt many people have kneeled down it its damp habitat in order to smell the little flowers. We found much more of it along various parts of the trail than I remembered. That is good news because it is not a very common plant. Nancy had never seen it before, but she quickly mastered the search image and could spot it very quickly growing on the banks of the creek and the trail.

The delicate flower of goldthread reminds me of a spider.

Another plant whose unassuming flower is often missed is goldthread (Coptis laciniata). This is not so surprising since it has to compete for attention this time of year with showier flowers such as bright white Western trillium (T. ovatum), purple snow queen (Synthyris reniformis), and sunny yellow evergreen violet (Viola sempervirens). The latter were all in good bloom along my favorite section of the trail, east of the Clark Creek burn area and Puma Campground. Goldthread is named for its yellow rhizomes. These are probably the most colorful part of the plant, yet they remain hidden underground. The flowers are quite unusual. The five or more sepals are quite long and narrow. The number of equally narrow but shorter petals varies quite a bit. A nectary creates an abrupt bend in each pale petal. Usually there are two flowers on a single stalk, but occasionally there are three or only one. The dissected evergreen foliage fooled me into thinking it was a fern, the first time I ever saw it, but it is actually a member of the buttercup family.

“Don’t sweat the small stuff” is a worthwhile expression for those overwhelmed with life’s challenges. But when it comes to flowers, I think it is well worth the effort of getting down on your hands and knees for the “small stuff”. You’ll be delighted by what you find.

3 Responses to “Small Flowers Worth a Closer Look Along Fall Creek”

  • Eleanor Ryan:

    Thanks Tanya for the beautiful pictures with good description of the flowers. well observed ! Ellie

  • John Wright:

    And I thought our spring woodlands only had trillum and skunk cabbage. Your method beautifully shows there is so much more if we learn to look.

  • Kim McMahan:

    Thanks for the botanical reminders of the Fall Creek area. Your colorful desriptions and excellent photography as always really bring the plants to life. As to the Oxalis Ed A. mentioned in his email, I also remember occasionally finding some (relatively) largish patches of Oxalis suksdorfii and O. trilliifolia on my past journeys in the Fall Creek drainage.

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