By Michele S. Byers
Take a walk in the woods this month and check out the forest floor. There in the dappled sunlight, popping up through last year’s leaves, you may spot the short-lived flowers of native perennials known as “spring ephemerals.”
Spring ephemerals are native woodland wildflowers that bloom during the brief window of time between snowmelt and tree leaf-out. As the spring sun warms the ground, these cute little plants grow quickly, flower, are pollinated and set seed.
By June, when New Jersey’s forest floors are deeply shaded by a leafy tree canopy, the blossoms will be gone and the plants hard to find.
The season is now for native ephemerals, including spring beauties, bloodroots, yellow trout lilies, rue anemones, Virginia bluebells, Eastern red columbines, Jack-in-the-pulpits, yellow marsh marigolds (cowslips), violets, wild geraniums, trilliums, flowering wintergreens, mayapples (wild mandrakes), Solomon’s seals, moccasin flowers (pink lady’s slippers) and more.
Many of them are small and delicate compared to showy summer flowers, but well worth the search.
Spring beauty blossoms, for instance, are not much larger than a fingernail and have lovely pink stripes on a pale background.
Trout lily flowers are golden yellow bells speckled with spots, much like the fish for which they are named; even their mottled leaves resemble brook trout.
If you are walking in a flood plain, you may see colonies of Virginia bluebells, whose magenta flower buds open into tubular blossoms of an exquisite sky blue.
Spring ephemerals – and all native plants – got great news last week when the U.S. Senate voted unanimously to designate April as National Native Plant Month.
This bipartisan resolution, introduced by U.S. senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI,) highlights the importance of native plants in conservation, environmental restoration and supporting a diversity of wildlife.
The National Native Plant Month resolution notes there are more than 17,000 native plant species in the United States, including trees, shrubs, vines, grasses and wildflowers.
These plants prevent flooding, drought and erosion, and can restore damaged ecosystems. They also provide nectar, pollen and seeds as food for native butterflies, insects, birds and other wildlife in ways that non-native plants cannot.
Dozens of conservation organizations, including the Garden Club of America, the North American Native Plant Society, the National Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Federation got behind the National Native Plant Month designation.
Here in New Jersey, you can participate in celebrating National Native Plant Month. New Jersey has more than 2,000 native plant species, with nearly 700 considered rare.
Here is what you can do:
• Protect the habitats where native plants grow wild by supporting land conservation efforts. New Jersey has a wide variety of ecosystems, from the flat, sandy terrain of the Pine Barrens to the rugged hills of the Highlands. Each region has its own unique native plant communities. Ask your elected officials to preserve native plant habitats, especially those supporting rare and endangered species.
• Urge your state legislators to bolster protections for New Jersey’s native plants. The New Jersey Endangered and Threatened Plant Protection Act (A-985) would protect rare plants from intentional damage and sale or transport, and would direct the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to establish an advisory committee to develop plans for protecting and restoring priority species. Another bill (S-83) would encourage New Jerseyans to plant native species.
• Incorporate native plants in your garden and landscapes. You will be rewarded with natural beauty and biodiversity, including abundant birds, butterflies and other pollinating insects. Another huge benefit is that choosing the right native plants means much less maintenance. For help in picking the right native plants for easy care, go to the Jersey-Friendly Yards website at www.jerseyyards.org/
• Support efforts to control invasive, non-native plants that compete with natives for soil, sunlight and water – but don’t provide their benefits. To learn about invasive plants, how they harm the environment and efforts to eradicate them, visit the New Jersey Invasive Species Strike Team website at www.fohvos.info/invasive-species-strike-team/
• Support the efforts of your town or county to reduce deer populations and protect meadows and forests from deer browsing. Overabundant deer herds have been proven to be the greatest threat to New Jersey’s forest regeneration for all native plant species, from trees to shrubs to wildflowers. The loss of natural forest structure, starting from the ground up, ruins the habitat value and the food chain for everything from butterflies to songbirds to amphibians to predatory birds.
• Avoid using insecticides – especially neonicotinamide-based insecticides – on your lawn or shrubs. Insecticides harm beneficial insects as well as pests, and “neonics” destroy all pollinators, especially bees. Support legislative efforts to ban these harmful substances.
• Teach your children, grandchildren and favorite young people about the importance of native plants. Plan a hike in the woods this month and see who can be first to spot beautiful spring ephemerals. Bring a field guide and see what other native trees, shrubs and plants you can identify.
For help with identification, visit the Native Plant Society of New Jersey website at www.npsnj.org/pages/nativeplants_Native_Plant_Gallery.html
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org