Let the Blooms Begin

The flowers of late winter and early spring occupy places in our hearts well out of proportion to their size.

~Gertrude S. Wister

Spring is a wonderful season for so many reasons, not the least of which is the explosion of wildflowers that spreads across our state beginning in February and lasting through May. One of the earliest of these beauties is Hepatica.

hepatica bloom RE

Hepatica flower just starting to open a couple of weeks ago here in the woods in Chatham County (click on photos to enlarge)

I saw my first Hepatica flower here in the woods near the house on March 11.

hepatica blooms

A patch of Round-lobed Hepatica at Pilot Mountain State Park

On my trip to Pilot Mountain State Park this past weekend, there were many patches of Hepatica just begining to bloom on steep slopes near the oxbow pool and along a small stream we explored. Spotting them peeking out of the leaf litter is one of the simple joys of a walk in the woods this time of year. The small flowers are easily overlooked if you walk too quickly, but once seen, they demand that you get down on the ground for a closer look. Combine that with the amphibian eggs and larvae we saw, and you have the perfect start to the season.

Hepatica leaf

Hepatica leaf from last year. Older leaves have splotches of purple on them and are reddish-purple underneath.

The word hepatica comes from the Greek word hepar, meaning liver. The three lobes and the purplish color of older leaves do somewhat resemble a liver and this plant was once used to treat liver ailments. Herbalists once believed in the so-called Doctrine of Signatures, in which plants that had any resemblance to human body parts were thought to be useful in the treatment of ailments of that part of the human body.

Hepatica leaves are evergreen with the ones you see early this spring being last year’s leaves. They no doubt are able to photosynthesize on warm winter days and then go full tilt in early spring before many other woodland ephemerals are even out. This may give them a head start on many of the other spring wildflowers. The old leaves die back and new ones emerge following the flowering.

hepatica bloom dark purple

The small, delicate flowers of Hepatica are usually lavender to blue in color although I have found some that are pinkish or almost all white. They vary in number from 6 (the most common number) to 8 or more. And it turns out they are not what they appear to be – what look like petals are technically the sepals – Hepatica has no true petals. And the three fuzzy things beneath the flower that look like sepals are actually bracts, or specially modified leaves. But it really doesn’t matter to a pollinator or a woods-walker looking for signs of spring.

hepatica blooms pair

Hepatica flowers can vary in color and the number of petal-like sepals


A Mirror in the Woods

Spring comes earliest to the bottoms of stagnant pools – there no cool winds blow – no hoar frosts penetrate – but they grow protected as under a glass. There are fewer disturbing influences to rob them of the full advantage of the sun’s increased altitude.

~Henry David Thoreau

Conservation groups, in partnership with Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, are designating 2014 as the Year of the Salamander (http://www.parcplace.org/news-a-events/2014-year-of-the-salamander.html). So, naturally, one of my naturalist friends has decided this is the year to see as many of North Carolina’s salamanders as possible. With that in mind, a few of us went to Pilot Mountain State Park this weekend in search of whatever amphibians we could find.

Pilot Mountain Big Pinnacle

Big Pinnacle at Pilot Mountain State Park (click photos to enlarge)

While many visitors simply drive to the summit and gaze out across the valley, or enjoy the view of Big Pinnacle, we were looking for things in the low country, in the Yadkin River section of the park. I had been to this section only once, years ago, when working for the state park system as a naturalist, so it was a great chance to do some exploring.

oxbow epheneral pool

Oxbow pool along Horne Creek

Walking along Horne Creek we came upon an oxbow that is now an isolated woodland pool, perfect for amphibians. An Upland Chorus Frog slowly called but soon fell silent as we approached…a good sign.

vernal pool reflection

Pool reflection

These woodland pools, especially those devoid of fish, are incredible habitats for a wide variety of organisms from macro-invertebrates to frogs and salamanders, They are also beautiful woodland mirrors that reveal a multidimensional world as I stare into the surface, at first seeing only the trees above, and then the dark bottom, covered in leaves. As I walked along the pool edge, I could see a few Water Striders, but little else, until I got to an area where a cluster of sticks protruded from the pool’s surface – amphibian egg masses! At first glance I thought they were Spotted Salamander egg masses, but my friend, Megan, pointed out they were Wood Frog eggs.

wood frog eggs

Wood Frog egg mass

Compared to the egg masses of Spotted Salamanders, the Wood Frog egg masses tend to be more globular, somewhat larger, and lack the stiff outer gelatinous matrix of the salamander eggs. There were several blobs of eggs attached to the twigs, with some appearing recently laid, and others more developed. As they age, the eggs are colonized by a symbiotic algae, Oophila amblystomatis, which imparts a greenish color to the cluster. This same algae colonizes Spotted Salamander eggs and is believed to utilize some of the waste from the developing eggs while providing some oxygen for them.

wood frog eggs after spreading out

Wood Frog egg mass colonized by algae

The Wood Frog egg masses also tend to flatten out at the surface of the pool as they age. While staring at one I noticed some movement – there were Marbled Salamander larvae resting on them. Marbled Salamanders lay their eggs in the fall as these pools fill with rainwater, and their larvae are well-developed predators by the time many of the other amphibian species start to hatch. Looking down I saw one of these tiny pool tigers swim up to an egg mass and position itself, just in case there was an early hatching by a tasty Wood Frog tadpole. The more mature green egg masses had many more Marbled Salamander larvae in attendance (look for the dark elongate shapes in the photo above).

Marbled salamander larvca on wood frog egg mass

Marbled Salamander larva on Wood Frog egg mass

Since the Wood Frog tadpoles tend to cling to their egg mass for a few days after hatching (to feed on the algae), it is a perfect place for the Marbled larvae to hang out. The hatching frog tadpoles are weak swimmers and easy prey.

Wood Frog tadpole at hatching

Wood Frog tadpole at hatching

I gently scooped up one recent hatchling for a quick photo. Luckily for the frogs, each egg mass contains a few hundred eggs, which should be enough to ensure survival of at least some of the tadpoles.

surface reflection

Woodland ephemeral pools are critical habitats

I love spending time near these pools, waiting, watching, listening – there is so much life to be found. Yet these are often some of the first habitats destroyed when we alter the landscape. I have witnessed once thriving amphibians pools destroyed by nearby earth moving which forever alters the drainage pattern or by intentional draining due to concerns about mosquitoes. In fact, the thriving community of predators in a typical woodland ephemeral pool usually means few or no mosquito larvae can survive. And without the woodland mirrors, both our forests and our natural heritage are diminished.

I encourage you to get out in the next few weeks and sit by the edge of a woodland pool and marvel at the life it contains. But, beware, anyone seeing you at such a pool may start to wonder, as did a neighbor of Thoreau’s back in 1858…

I learn that one farmer, seeing me standing a long time still in the midst of a pool (I was watching for frogs), said that it was his father, who had been drinking some of Pat Haggerty’s rum, and had lost his way home. So, setting out to lead him home, he discovered that it was I.