Orange Trail May 5, 2020
Early May is a great time to look for spring wildflowers and there are lots of places to do so in the Capital District. The Heldeberg Workshop is spectacular this time of year, as buds are opening on trees, birds are vocalizing as they set up territories, and spring wildflowers abound. Join us on a virtual hike of the Orange Trail – a ¾ mile loop that starts behind the Pole Building, officially known as the Frank McLaughlin Pavilion, and to the right of the Nurse’s Station.
An orange marker with the Workshop logo marks the start of the trail.
The trail consists of large oak, beech and hickory trees, all of which provide lots of food for our forest friends. If you stand at the base of this hickory tree (Carya sp) and look straight up to the sky, it is amazing to think of how old and tall these trees really are. If trees could talk, I wonder what stories they could tell about the animals and people that passed by them over the years?
The trail is flanked at several points by stream beds that rush with water at this time of year. Try to imagine the sounds of water coursing through them. Later in the summer these stream beds will typically be dry on the surface, but in early spring they are full of water. What you do not see in mid-summer is that the stream is flowing, but it is underground! Hike a few hundred feet upstream and you will find shallow pools with a slight flow even during the driest summer. The water disappears underground and may emerge nearly a half mile away as a spring seep in Vly Swamp on the other side of Picard road.
As we continue up the trail the forest floor is alive with the color of beautiful early wildflowers.
The first wildflower we see is Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), a member of the poppy family with a stunning white flower and a beautiful, deeply lobed leaf. When the plant first emerges from the soil, the leaf curls around stem as if it is giving the flower a hug!
As the plant gets older the leaf unfurls and flower petals radiate outward. No wonder Bloodroot is many people’s favorite wildflower.
Bloodroot gets its gruesome name from a red sap it releases if its stem or root is broken. It is said that native Americans used this sap to paint their bodies for war. It was used by early settlers to dye cloth and wool a reddish-orange color. If you look closely at the center of the Bloodroot leaf below, you will see a tiny animal. Count its legs and try to guess what it might be!
Close by is a tall hickory tree. You can tell it is a Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) by observing its silvery-white colored “shaggy” bark.
If you look at the base of this tree you might find some hickory nuts. I have enlarged this picture so you can see the nuts better. Looks like a forest creature enjoyed a tasty snack!
With of all this food around, it is not surprising to find clues that turkeys have been foraging on the forest floor. They have scratched up leaves to expose hidden nuts, seeds, insects, or worms. Can you see any in this picture?
The presence of turkey scat is another clue that turkeys were in the area. Unlike most birds, turkeys produce a scat that is cylindrically shaped and has a white spot at one end made from uric acid. Can you find it in the picture below?
Not far away, it was easy to spy a white flower with a distinctive lobed leaf. The leaf turns a deep reddish-brown color as it ages. It is Sharp-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba). You may know that the term “hepatic” refers to the liver, a multi-lobed, reddish-brown organ. Long ago, some people thought that the shape of a plant indicated the medical use of that plant. This faulty reasoning is known as the “doctrine of signatures.” As a result, Hepatica was sometimes used in the past to treat liver ailments, despite having no ability to do so.
A plant that does have practical use for humans who like ginger snap cookies was growing nearby: Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense)! It has two large heart-shaped, deeply veined leaves with hairy stems. Tucked in between its two leaves is a unique purplish-brown flower. If you visit the Workshop in summer, you will see this plant along many trails or even growing high on a boulder! But you will only see the flower in early spring. But never pick a plant unless you have permission to do so!
Can you see the cluster of Wild Ginger plants growing high in the crevice of a large boulder? Look for it the next time you are at Heldeberg Workshop, or when you are hiking on community trails.
Further along the trail were other heart-shaped wildflowers you may be familiar with: violets. These flowers come in many colors, but all violet flowers have 5 petals, and the lowest petals are often wider and heavily veined. Here are some we spied along the trail:
Canada Violet (Viola canadensis)
Early Yellow Violet (Viola rotundifolia)
Near the end of the trail we spy a solitary Red Trillium (Trillium erectum). This stunning wildflower has body parts in multiples of threes: 3 petals, 3 narrow bracts and 3 leaves. No wonder it is named Trillium! Despite being beautiful, it has an unpleasant smell – something like rotting meat – and is also known by the common name “Stinking Benjamin.” While we may not enjoy its odor, some meat loving pollinators like flesh flies (Sarcophaga spp) do and assist it in seed production.
To the right of the Red Trillium we were delighted to see a large stand of an umbrella-shaped plant known as May-apple or Mandrake (Podophyllum peltatum). It figured prominently in the Harry Potter book The Chamber of Secrets. We will talk more about this plant when its flower is in bloom later in May.
The Orange Trail ends down near the Office. If you look closely at the background of this picture you will see the Pole Building. The trees are beginning to bud out reminding us that the days are getting longer and warmer.
Maybe you will see wildflowers just like the ones on the Orange Trail as you hike around the community this spring! And look for future virtual hikes on our website so you can learn more about the mandrake plant, salamanders, ferns and much more.