If you find extensive tracts of the Wood Anemone, a small wildflower of shady deciduous woodlands, you are probably in an older, established forest. It takes about five years for anemones to flower and longer to spread through underground rhizomes. This plant prefers moist, mucky soils and in New York, I have seen it growing in red maple wetlands.
This wildflower’s dainty white flowers are pollinated by hover flies, a species that eats nectar and pollen. It is a poisonous plant if eaten and folklore nicknamed it the wind flower because its blossoms flutter in the breeze.
This is just one indicator of a mature forest. The types and sizes of trees, a rich leaf litter, multi-layered canopies and even the species of wildlife can all help determine how old a forest may be. If you are in the eastern U.S. or Canada, and see widespread areas of the wood anemone, you can assume it’s a relatively undisturbed older forest.
Walking through the red maple/black gum freshwater wetlands along the Connetquot River in New York, I see small blue-violet plants on moss hummocks, on the exposed root balls from blown over trees and along the edges of creeks and small streams.
As I bend down to get a closer look, I see hairless heart-shaped leaves with blueish blossoms of a wild violet. Its flower is darker towards its center and there are short white “beards” lining the center. It is the native marsh blue violet.
When you identify plants, it is helpful to know what habitat it grows in. Some trees, shrubs, and wildflowers prefer wet, saturated soils and others thrive where the soils are sandy and dry and many variations of the two.
The Marsh blue violet likes it wet so if you are east of the Mississippi and have wetlands in your area, look for this pretty little violet.
In the last few blogs. I focused on several species in the violet family. One of the showiest violets is the birdfoot violet. So called due to its leaves resembling a bird’s foot, it grows in drier areas than the other species I featured and at Connetquot River State Park Preserve in New York, I often found it on the sandy fire-lanes of the park.
It is as showy as pansies (a cultivated garden violet) with deep violet-blue colors highlighted by yellow-orange tipped stamens. This attracts bees and butterflies that sip its nectar in exchange for the pollination of its flowers for seed production.
This species thrives in the eastern half of the U.S. and is worth finding in the wild.
When I worked in Connetquot River State Park Preserve in New York, I was charged with the monitoring its rare plants and animals. Each spring I traveled a little over a mile into the preserve to look for the rare coastal blue violet. The park had the only population of this violet in all of New York State.
The violet grows on the fire road edges and is difficult to see because it’s often covered by leaf litter and towered over by grasses and sedges. With patience and stamina I was able to spot its blue-violet blossom. Its leaves are unique; the leaves look like a hand with outstretched fingers.
This species is limited to the coastal areas of the eastern U.S. from South Carolina to Maine (although it is thought to be extirpated there). It is an endangered or threatened species in most states.
Now that I am retired, I hope that current and future custodians of the preserve will continue to be good caretakers of the areas these plants grow.
Sweet White Violet
Yes, some violets are white and there are many species of white violets, several of them I am featuring here. There are a few characteristics that distinguish violets from one another. In addition to blossom color, there are differences in the shape of the leaves, variability in the texture of the leaves (some have fine hairs, others are shiny) and each species grows in distinctive habitats.
The primrose-leaved violet is a small white violet with egg-shaped leaves with scalloped edges. The leaves often have fine hairs. It thrives in wet sandy pine barren meadows.
The second white violet is lance-leaved violet which has lance shaped leaves. It often has multiple flowers at the end of one stem. The flower is also called the bog violet because it grows sandy bog-like areas.
The sweet white violet has heart-shaped leaves and its flower is at the end of a single stem that is usually taller than its leaves. It grows in moist woodlands and in red maple-black gum forests.
These violets grow from the mid-west to the eastern U.S. from Canada south to the Gulf Coast States and are a delight to see in their native environment.
It is spring in the northeast and mid-Atlantic, a perfect time to find violets of many different species. During a recent visit to my daughter’s house in Maryland, I was amazed at how ubiquitous the common blue violet was in her neighborhood. Lawns were dotted with the blue blossoms of the common blue violet.
These violets are highly variable in color ranging from deep blues to white with blue highlights. It grows in open meadows and sunny woodlands where it attracts insects for pollination.
There are many species of violets, some with heart shapes leaves and others with lance-like leaves. Some species are white with blue veins while others are blue with a splash of white in the center and there are even violets that are deep blue with yellow centers.
Although the violets I saw in Maryland seem to grow like weeds on the manicured lawns, my daughter embraces these delicate plants and enjoys them during their brief bloom.
One of my fondest memories as a 10-year-old child was seeing these brightly colored birds in the wild when my family moved to a rural area from a suburban post World War II development where rows of cape cod houses and strip malls took the place of potato farmland. I was accustomed to seeing the only birds that survived the suburban sprawl – brown English sparrows and iridescent black starlings with the occasional robin. Our new home was smack in the middle of Long Island pine barren woodlands complete with pitch pine trees, red and white oak trees and scrub oaks.
Blue jays were common here and when I saw them as child, it was similar to seeing the colorful birds in the Bronx Zoo exhibits. I was also impressed by the blue jays distinctive alarmist sounding call that was music to my ears yet irritating to some after the first few calls.
In grade school we learn how squirrels hide acorns and other nuts in the woodlands, forgetting where they put them all resulting in young trees being born. What many people don’t know is that blue jays are also responsible in the new growth in the forest. These Jays also stash acorns in the soil often forgetting where they put them all.
To this day, seeing or hearing blue jays brings me back to my childhood and the awe I developed for nature’s creatures.