Friday, February 22, 2013

Class Preview: Exploring Spring Flora

Hepatica Americana. Photo by Stefan Bloodworth
By Emma Loewe

When envisioning the floral transition into springtime, people usually imagine a sudden and dramatic bloom—an outburst of life that quickly drapes over the barren winter landscape. But botanist Ken Moore, former assistant director of the North Carolina Botanical Garden, disagrees. He says the cyclical nature of plants makes the rise to spring a more gradual one.

Moore will discuss this early spring period in a field studies class presented by Duke Gardens at Penny’s Bend Nature Preserve on March 16. He shared some of his observations in a phone interview this month.

Certain spring wildflowers on the forest floor take advantage of the dwindling sunlight of late winter, Moore notes. Spring ephemerals are plants “adapted to come out as soon as the weather begins warming up while there is still sunlight coming through the deciduous tree canopy of the forest.”

This year, these signs of the coming spring are surfacing especially early. “Because of the weird weather we are having, things are blooming earlier than normal.” Plants like hepatica take advantage of milder weather, he says, and “if you have a warm spell in winter, a few of them will come out on certain sunny days.”

Crane flower orchids are another instance of wildflowers that flourish outside of the typical flowering season. The flower’s leaves “come out in the fall on the forest floor, grow through the winter and disappear in April, taking advantage of the winter sun.” The products of this early development can be seen in the summer when its stems come up covered in a cluster of tiny orchids.

Once spring hits and life is restored in natural habitats, the forest takes on a whole new dimension, he says. “The plants and animals are responding to the return of the warmer growing season, so you’ll have lots and lots of activity—from plants growing and flowering to insects buzzing around and pollinating to the birds going through their life cycle. You’re looking at everything.”

Nature’s seasonality limits every life span, Moore says. For this reason, observing something in blossom is a true gift. “Every time you see a native plant in bloom, it's really special. It's like a present—taking a walk in the woods means seeing what little presents nature has given you.”

Consider joining Moore to see what gifts nature has to offer next month. His “Early Spring Jewels: Field Studies” hike runs from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

TO REGISTER: please call 919-668-1707, email or go to to register or for more information. 

Sarah P. Duke Gardens creates and nurtures an environment in the heart of Duke University for learning, inspiration and enjoyment through excellence in horticulture. The Gardens is at 420 Anderson St.

Columnist Emma Loewe is an environmental policy major at Duke University and a work-study assistant at Duke Gardens. This column originally appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun.

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