WVU Department of Biology Spring Wildflower Walks

dwarf larkspurCome see and learn about the amazing spring show that happens on campus every year! These free, guided tours are a spring tradition at WVU Core Arboretum! The WVU Department of Biology hosts several spring ephemeral wildflower walks each April. Last year, in the course of three wildflower walks, over 45 species of plants were seen in bloom. All tours will meet in the Arboretum parking lot. Additional free parking is available at the nearby WVU Coliseum. No reservations are needed. Dress appropriately for the weather and for hiking.  

One of the great benefits of living in a temperate deciduous forest is the opportunity to witness the coming of spring and the sudden return of green plants and flowers each year. Spring ephemeral wildflowers, one of the main players in this beautiful event, have evolved to take advantage of a brief period of optimal growing conditions. These flowers nearly all bloom at once during a rush to use available light in early spring. 

Spring ephemerals are spring specialists. They are generally small, nonwoody plants that fit their entire aboveground life cycle into the month of time in spring when the weather is warm enough for plants to grow, but the leaves of the trees have not yet fully expanded and blocked most of the light. Spring ephemerals are mostly long-lived perennials. They usually have some sort of underground energy storage organ such as a bulb, corm, tuber, rhizome, or taproot in which they wait out the rest of the year. Spring ephemerals use stored energy and lots of light to quickly grow, flower, and produce seeds.  By the time the tree leaves have come out, many of these plants are fully dormant again, underground with no visible leaves. There are still plants growing at ground level during summer in the forest, but they are more sparsely distributed, shade tolerant, and do not bloom all at the same time like the spring ephemerals do.

Some examples of native spring ephemerals found in West Virginia include: bloodroot, celandine poppy, Dutchman's breeches, dwarf larkspur, foamflower, harbinger of spring, hepaticas, rue anemone, spring beauties, squirrel corn, toothworts, trilliums, trout lily, twinleaf, Virginia bluebells, wild blue phlox, wild ginger, and wood anemone. Some plants on this list do have some leaves that persist through the summer (e.g. bloodroot and wild ginger), but most are truly dormant by midsummer.

Spring ephemeral wildflowers have also evolved specialized relationships with insects. They can have species-specific relationships with native pollinating insects like flies and bees, in which the insect only uses that particular flower for a food source. Interestingly, many of the spring ephemerals have also evolved a symbiotic seed dispersal mechanism known as myrmecochory—ants distribute their seeds. The ants eat a portion of the seed known as the elaiosome, then discard the actual seed to germinate some distance from the parent plant in a nutrient-rich waste heap.

To see a great display of spring ephemeral flowers, you will need to find a rich, sunny patch of temperate deciduous forest that has not been disturbed for a long time and is not overeaten by deer or overtaken by invasive plant species. Because they have such a brief growing period each year, most spring ephemerals develop and mature slowly and are easily impacted by forest disturbance, etc.—another great reason to protect and preserve forests. Although they are small, these flowers can often be older than some of the trees around them! Make sure and visit your favorite forest often before the leaves come out this spring—as lovely as these flowers are, they do not last long and the show changes each day.

We have a world-class display of these wildflowers at the Arboretum. The lower portions of the Arboretum (just above the Rail Trail near the junction of the Nuttall Trail and Sheldon Trail, in particular) are completely transformed into a sea of flowers in April. It is something that one must see to believe, and many people travel far to see it each spring. We have a long-standing tradition of offering free, guided wildflower walks at the Arboretum on three Sundays of April.