March begins the wildflower year in Cuyahoga Valley National Park -- a year that extends well into late fall. Watching the progression of wildflowers can deepen your awareness of nature through the changing seasons. It is also a wonderful window into the habitat diversity that enriches this area naturally.
Skunk cabbage is the first arrival. While it may appear during winter thaws, as it did this year, it blooms more consistently in March. To find skunk cabbage, take trails into the valley's moist ravines such as Haskell Run Trail, a half-mile loop behind Happy Days Lodge. Look carefully to find skunk cabbage. Its large, green leaves grow after it blooms. What you might be tempted to call its flower is actually a spathe. It grows like a purple-and-brown hood over a small knob. The plant's flowers are small, yellow blooms that cover the knob. Bend down and look inside the spathe to discover the flowers.
Coltsfoot also makes its appearance in March. Its bright yellow flower is easy to confuse with a dandelion until you look at its scaly stalk. This is a non-native plant that grows where the ground has been disturbed. It is a common sight along the edges of the Towpath Trail.
As spring unfolds in April and May, return to ravine trails like Haskell Run to enjoy wildflowers. Plants grow in a hurry to soak up the sun before leaves close the forest canopy and darken the ground with shade. Flowers can become so numerous, they create a carpet of color on the forest floor. Earlier flowers include spring beauty, hepatica, bloodroot, and cut-leafed toothwort. They are followed by bluets, adder's tongue, and Dutchman's breeches. By Mother's Day, some of the more brilliantly colored spring wildflowers join in, notably pink wild geraniums and blue-fading-into-pink Virginia bluebells. Later, as the canopy closes, some more subtle flowers enter the procession.
It isn't the intent of this article to describe or even list every flower. I listed some flower names hoping that their diversity would spark your curiosity. Taking the time to enjoy their varied colors, shapes, and textures is enough to inspire appreciation. Whether you are just looking or trying to identify them, we ask that you do not pick wildflowers. They are protected in Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
It is worth knowing some of the pest wildflowers. They can be some of the showiest flowers and are appealing based on looks alone. However, non-native, invasive species crowd native plants and limit their growth. In spring, garlic mustard grows extensively in the forest when unchecked. It has small, white flowers with four petals and a garlicky smell when its leaves are crushed. Later in spring and into summer, dame's rocket -- a four-petaled flower in shades of pink, white, and purple--grows extensively along the Towpath Trail. A rule that I've set for myself is to find out which plants cause ecological harm before I become attached to any for aesthetic reasons.
In summer, flowers become less common in the forests and more common in other habitats in the park. I find myself paying the most attention to wetland flowers. Joe-pye weed is a tall, rosy-pink flower that grows in wet areas. Spatterdock and sweet-scented lily float on the water's surface at the Beaver Marsh.
In late summer and fall, old fields become the best place to seek wildflowers. A variety of asters and goldenrods dominate. Deep, rich purple ironweed adds to the color. Trails in the park that provide access to old fields include the Tree Farm and Cross Country trails.
As leaves fall and woodlands become seemingly dormant, one more plant extends the flower-watching year. Witch hazel is a small tree with oval, wavy-toothed leaves. Its inconspicuous, yellow flowers grow in small clusters. The surprise of finding them so late in the year provides a satisfying end to the wildflower year.
For more information about the park and its trails, call 330-657-2752 or visit online at www.nps.gov/cuva.