Niquette Bay Wildflower Hike

Join Vermont State Parks on Sunday April 28th and May 4th for a hike in Niquette Bay State Park while looking at spring wildflowers. Niquette Bay State Park is home to many wildflower colonies that put on a beautiful show for just a few weeks this time of year. Let’s hunt for wildflowers in the Park from 10am – 12pm on Sunday, April 28 and Saturday, May 4.  Bring your camera and any wildflower guide books along for an informative hike through the park with Park Ranger Lisa Liotta.  Space is limited, please phone the park at 802.893.5210 to RSVP.  *Please keep doggies at home or in the car for these hikes in order to protect these fragile species.

From Niquette Bay Ranger Lisa Liotta:

Today, I found the first spring ephemerals of 2013 in the Park.  Spring ephemerals are perennial wildflowers that are the first of the season to appear.  The word “ephemeral” means short lived, fleeting, transitory;  and it is a very apt adjective for these delicate and interesting flowers.

Spring ephemerals begin to grow very early, often before the last snow is gone and while temperatures are often still below freezing for at least part of the day.  These flowers thrive in hardwood, deciduous forests where the sun reaches the ground early in Spring, before the trees grow leaves.  Ample leaf litter protects emerging plants from frost, spring snows and cold temperatures.  Some ephemerals, such as Hepatica, have been equipped by nature with dense hairs that prevent ice condensation and act as insulators, protecting the flowers from frosts.

Spring ephemerals are usually small plants.  Growing close to the ground and remaining small helps the plants weather temperature extremes.  In early spring, the ground is usually very wet, and the moist earth mediates the extremes of day and nighttime temperatures.  Small plants can begin their growth cycle under the cover of leaves still on the ground from the prior year.

In early spring, nutrients added to the soil from decomposing leaves and other organic matter from the year prior are at the highest level.  Moisture levels are also high as trees have not yet begun to grow and absorb the moisture from the soil.  Spring ephemerals have the first crack at both the extra nutrients, and ample moisture, both of which contribute to their brief and dramatic display.

When temperatures begin to rise above freezing in the spring and the days lengthen as the sun moves south, the plants burst into life.  These perennial flowers must grow from the ground, flower, and produce seeds all within a short 6-8 week window – there isn’t much time for the plants to grow large.  They must complete their entire life cycle while the sun still reaches the forest floor, before the deciduous trees grow leaves and block all available sunlight.  By the time the trees have leafed out, the spring ephemerals have put on their annual display, and are gone.

The seeds of spring ephemerals often have fatty appendages called eliasomes.  Insects, especially ants, are attracted to the fatty substances, and carry the seeds back to their nests to feed their young.  The insects consume the fatty tissue, and discard the seed intact.  On average, a seed is carried just two meters (less than six feet), from the parent plant.  In future years if conditions are favorable the seed may germinate and grow a new plant.   As perennials, each plant can regenerate for several seasons if the conditions and habitat are favorable and remain undisturbed.  This is how we come to find colonies of the same ephemerals growing in the forest.  Some ephemeral colonies are documented to be over 300 years old.

Trillium Grandiflora, commonly named White Trillium, grow in colonies and are true spring ephemerals.  When looking at a large colony of native Trilliums, it is mind boggling to consider that the seed first of all is spread by ants (the process is known as myrmecochory), it takes two years for the seeds to fully germinate, and then the plant takes 7-10 years in optimal growing conditions before it flowers. 

Human activity, overpopulation of herbivores such as deer, dogs and other domestic animals, all pose the biggest threats to our native spring wildflowers.  People often pick the flowers or harvest wild plants, which kills surviving rootstocks and eliminates the possibility of the plant re-seeding in its native environment and keeping a colony healthy and thriving.

Spring ephemerals are best admired from a reasonable distance.  Stay on designated trails in parks and wildlands so that sensitive habitats are not destroyed.  Keep dogs leashed, or in close proximity and under voice control where spring ephemerals are located.  If your dog does happen to defecate, please scoop, bag, and remove it – the feces are highly concentrated with nitrogen and phosphorus in levels that will kill plants in the immediate vicinity.  Don’t pick wildflowers or dig up the plants, no matter how many are present – it may just be a rare and an endangered plant. 

What are Spring Ephemerals?
Spring Ephemerals are unique early blooming wildflowers that grow, flower, and seed all in the very short 6-8 week window before the shade from leaf trees covers the forest floor.  By the time deciduous trees have leaves, these flowers will be gone.

Where do they grow?
The best location to find these is in a predominately deciduous forest, with large trees and little undergrowth.  They can grow very well on rocky ledges in less than ideal soil conditions.

How do they spread?
Ephemerals are perennials.  This means that the plant may live for several years, IF it is undisturbed and has favorable growing conditions.  Each year it completes a cycle of growth, flower, seed, and then die-back to the ground at the end of its season to wait for the next year.
Ephemerals also spread by seed and are dependent upon ants for the process.  Ephemeral seeds have a fatty appendage that attracts ants.  Ants will carry the seeds back to their nests up to a few meters away, the young ants then eat the fatty part, and the ants discard the seed.  A new plant may germinate the following year from the discarded seed.  This is how colonies of Ephemerals form.

Can we pick the flowers or take the plants?
No. Aside from being illegal in a State Park…….once the flower is picked, it cannot produce a seed to grow a new plant the following year.  Removing a plant stops the process; that plant is gone from its native habitat forever, and so are any future flowers it may produce that would go to seed in that location.
Once an Ephemeral colony is gone, it is exceedingly rare that it will ever return.

Are any of these rare or endangered plants in Vermont?
YES!!!  Many rare and endangered species live at Niquette Bay State Park.  Some Spring Ephemerals live in colonies that are over 300 years old.  Did you know that it takes up to two years for a Trillium seed to germinate, and then in optimal conditions, another 7-10 years for the plant to flower?  Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) is so rare, that there are less than 5 high quality occurences in the entire State of Vermont.  This plant lives here in the Park, along with many others that are classified as rare and endangered.

What should we do to help protect these fragile species?
1.      Stay on the trails, admire from a distance, do not disturb the plant colonies if at all possible.
2.      Keep dogs under control and away from wildflower colonies; it may be rare or endangered.
3.      Pick up all dog feces no matter where they land; feces are highly concentrated with nitrogen and phosphorus and will kill plants, not fertilize them.
4.     Never pick a native wildflower or remove the plant.


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