We went down to the Rock Furnace trail of Roaring Run last Thursday to try to get a walk in before the forecast rains began. This trail follows the ravine of Rattling Run and Roaring Run down to its junction with the Kiski River. It is a strikingly beautiful place to walk! It was nearly sixty degrees and sunny when we left our house for the ten minute drive to the trail. Clouds, though, were rolling in quickly, and it was getting cooler by the minute. By the end of our walk a light rain had begun to fall and it felt very good to climb back into the warm, dry car.
At the parking lot of the trailhead common chickweed (Stellaria media) (photo by D. Sillman), one of our first flowering plants of spring, was abundant and in flower.
Chickweed grows especially well in damp, cool habitats like the Rock Furnace ravine, but it can tolerate and even thrive in a very broad range of moisture and temperature conditions. It is a native of Europe that has spread almost everywhere that Europeans have colonized (or maybe just even visited!). It is a cold tolerant annual that can, in areas with mild winters, persist all the way through the winter season. It grows in high latitudes (up close to the Arctic Circle) and at high altitudes. Its stems hang limply over the ground and are covered with small (1/3″), paired, oval leaves that open during the day and close at night. Rising over the greenery of the stems and leaves are tiny (1/2″ across) white flowers whose five petals are so deeply divided that they look ten-pointed stars. Each flower only lives for one day and is capable of self-pollination (a very useful feature in a flower that opens weeks before most insects are stirring!). Chickweed, though, flowers almost continuously throughout its growing season and can on milder days be cross-pollinated by several species of flies. A single plant can make 2500 to 15,000 seeds! These seeds can germinate in the warming spring soils or persist in the soil systems for up to ten years without losing their viability. Chickweed seeds are eaten by many species of game and song birds, and its leaves are consumed by a wide range of mammals. Humans eat chickweed seeds and leaves, too, and brew plant parts into a variety of medicinal teas and poultices.
Chickweed is an invasive, exotic weed that can be a serious economic pest in many agricultural and turf grass systems. In parts of its native range, though, it is specifically planted to assist the growth of economically important crops. In the vineyards of the Rhine Valley, for example, a place Deborah and I got to visit last summer (picture by Deborah to the left!), the steep slopes are extensively planted with chickweed for erosion and water control and to help keep soil temperatures as consistent as possible for the roots of these delicate grapevines.
Further along the trail we saw spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) (photo by D. Sillman). In addition to being a very reliable “sign of spring” this beautiful, flowering plant is also edible from its root and thumb-sized, underground corm to its green, leafy stem! A number of references describing both food uses by Native Americans and European explorers include spring beauty (especially its carbohydrate rich corm) as an important food item. It would seem a shame to pull up and destroy such a delicate flowering plant for such a tiny meal, but if you were really hungry I suppose beauty must yield to calories.
At the Mc Inerney #6 gas well about a quarter of a mile down the trail, a tall, south facing, concave hillside acts as a heat collector and almost always drives spring plants to grow and flower days to weeks ahead of other area sites. Here we saw our first yellow, dandelion-like flowers of coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) of the spring (although I then saw more in a roadside ditch on the drive home!) (photo by D. Sillman). Coltsfoot is another introduced plant species from Europe and Asia that probably came into Western Pennsylvania with the first European settlers. It is a plant with a number of traditional, medicinal uses but is a potent source of alkaloids that can be toxic. Coltsfoot is unusual in that it flowers long before it sets its leaves. So, if you see a yellow, dandelion-like flower and no surrounding leaves, it’s probably coltsfoot! Coltsfoot is classified as an alien exotic plant and can be an invasive “weed.” It is a welcome blast of yellow, though, in these still very brown days of early spring.
Spring cress was also in flower still further down the trail, and Deborah also saw a mourning cloak butterfly that fluttered down from its usual tree branch fly-zone to swoop a few circuits around her head. The adult mourning cloaks hibernate in tree holes and in tiny crevices under loose tree bark. They fly out on warm spring days looking for sugar rich runs of tree sap (their favorite food!) and then return to their hibernaculae at night. They will soon mate and lay the eggs that will hatch into the fast growing caterpillars that will in turn metamorphose into the next generation of adults by June or July. (see the species page about mourning cloaks on the Virtual Nature Trail).
The forest floor is still mostly brown and waiting for big spring events like the rise and opening of May apple plants. The persistent greens of the Christmas fern and the evergreen wood fern make up most of color across the monotonous browns of the dried leaves and downed branches. Soon, though, there will be trillium! Soon there will be tanagers and grosbeaks! My red maple next to the street flowered a few days ago, but the maples out in the woods look to be a week or more away from flowering. The hill sides will turn red with all of their buds and blooms!
Last weekend I saw my first towhee of the Spring! He was a very striking male hunting around in the grass around our raspberry patch. And, as I write this, I am listening to the whispy song of the white-throated sparrow. The male sparrow is out in my arbor vitae hedge singing his territorial aspirations for the entirety of my backyard. His song is spring itself, and it is more than enough for today!