Monday, April 15, 2013

Ohio's Spring Gold Rush

Rich wooded slopes of a diverse mixed mesophytic woodland

Each and every spring around this time of year a particular brand of anxiousness and excitement invades the mind of this blogger in anticipation for Ohio's very own gold rush.  Only the reward isn't the increasingly rare natural element we humans have placed so much curious value in, but rather the presence of one of our state's most rare and absolutely spectacular of spring ephemerals: the goldenstar-lily (Erythronium rostratum).

Goldenstar-lily (Erythronium rostratum)

With the warmth of spring finally settling into the Ohio river valley and sunny skies on the docket, I decided it was now or never to head down south into Scioto county to see if luck and timing was to be in my favor.  The luminous goldenstars only grace the re-awakening woodland landscape for a very short time and once that window of opportunity slams shut it's a long wait for their reappearance the following spring.

Goldenstar-lily (Erythronium rostratum)
Goldenstar-lily (Erythronium rostratum)

My stomach knotted a bit as my car turned onto the secluded back road that winded along the stretch of Rocky Fork Creek that had long been known to harbor these great rarities.  After famed and brilliant Ohio botanist/ecologist Lucy Braun's chance discovery of these delicate beauties back in 1963, it would be nearly 50 years before a new population outside this specific watershed would be discovered.  As fate would have it, I happened to be along for the ride the day this serendipitous uncovering was made and I documented it HERE back in the spring of 2011.

Goldenstar-lily (Erythronium rostratum)

With my car slowed to a crawl and nervous eyes fixated on the forested roadside and lower slopes of the mixed-mesophytic woodland, I waited for any flash of unmistakable golden yellow to catch my attention.  Suddenly one appeared, then two and three, and like the flood waters of a compromised levee, dozens and dozens began to spill into view.  Their dazzling tepals were spread wide open, attempting to catch every ray of sunlight radiating down from the naked canopy above.  While our other species of Erythronium droop and nod during antithesis like a shy introvert, the same cannot be said of the goldenstar.  It seems to know its beauty and authority is second to none. In a show of strength, its peduncles hold the flowers aloft to proudly gaze at the heavens above.

Distribution map of Erythronium rostratum (courtesy BONAP)

Taking a glance at the range map of the goldenstar it becomes noticeable that this peculiar plant is not only interesting for its looks but its natural range(s) as well.  Here in Ohio, the species is at the northernmost fringe of its predominately southern distribution and a part of one of three distinct population clusters.  I wonder what caused the goldenstar-lily to occur in three divergent, different sized zones?

Mixed-mesophytic forest home of the goldenstar-lilies

Even without the hundreds of vibrant yellow faces of the goldenstars it wouldn't have been too hard to conclude spring had arrived under the beech, tuliptrees, and oak.  A number of other spring wildflowers were beginning to glance out from under the decaying leaf litter as the evergreen fronds of Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) relinquished their monopoly of the color green.

Harbinger-of-spring (Erigenia bulbosa)
Awakening bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

Other associate plant species were in bloom or bud throughout the mesic slopes such as: slender toothwort (Cardamine angustata), spring beauties (Claytonia virginica), harbinger-of-spring (Erigenia bulbosa), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), early bluegrass (Poa cuspidata), and wood rush (Luzula echinata).

Wild Leeks (Allium tricoccum)
Hillside full of emerging wild leeks

Easily the most noticeable part of the greening landscape was the mass emergence of thousands of wild leeks (Allium tricoccum) from their subterranean homes.  Their bulbs have long been a popular spring vegetable and onion substitute for foragers and go amazing with the soon-to-arrive morel mushrooms!  Their leaves soon wither away and disappear completely before the plant flowers in the deep shade of the summer woods.

Goldenstar-lily (Erythronium rostratum)

While I typically prefer overcast days for wildflower photography to best balance out the shadows and contrast, one really must catch the goldenstar-lilies on days of full sun.  Their sensitive flowers quickly close under cloud cover and are a far cry from the full potential these specimens photographed are boasting.

Goldenstar-lily (Erythronium rostratum)
Just waking up

There's been many occasions where timing has provided your blogger with moments of fleeting to severe frustration.  There are few things worse than driving long distances to find wildflowers just about to bloom or just past peak and beginning to set seed.  Fortunately, that was hardly the case this time around and I was able to enjoy a full afternoon pleasantly spent in the company of one of Ohio's most remarkable and fervent of spring ephemerals.  I image as I sit down and write this all the flowers shown in these pictures have done their job and are now featuring their characteristic beaked fruit capsule.  With any luck the seeds within will be viable and help to ensure these wonderful plants are around for years and generations to come.  I'm already looking forward to next year's gold rush and the bounty of goldenstars that await!


  1. That Erythronium is stunning, Andrew. What a gorgeous little thing. We were just out to see the Oregon Fawn Lilies (Erythronium oregonum) and the Glacier Lilies (E. grandiflorum) should be blooming through the snow in the passes very soon. I've posted pictures of the Fawn Lilies on my other blog. Would dearly love to see this one, though. It's a kind of dream that some spring I'm able to get our your way and see some of these treasures (we have family in Michigan and Illinois, so it's not impossible). Would love to show you around out here.

  2. 'Some very nice compositions, there, Andrew! Thanks!