The stories – and mysteries – of our native flowers with naturalist Carol Gracie
Sleeping beneath the forest floor are spring’s wildflowers, waiting to emerge once the winter days wane. Each wildflower is crucially linked to its environment, whether by the pollinators which feed on its nectar and pollen or by the ants and beetles which spread its seeds. Few people are more knowledgeable about the stories of how native wildflowers connect to the world around them than Carol Gracie, wildflower ecologist and author of Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast, a guide that dives into some of the Northeast’s most beloved and iconic signs of spring.
“I take a deep look at wildflowers,” Gracie said. “I like to see them in their environment and how they interact with that environment. I look at how plants get their names, what feeds on them, what chemicals they have in them that might deter feeding, all sorts of things.”
This information isn’t easy to Google. Gracie’s research takes her from one science journal to another, and to long observations of wildflowers in their habitats. “Much of this information is only available in scientific papers, which can be pretty dry and deadly, not to mention that most people don’t have access to them,” Gracie said. “What I try to do is take that information, which is often very interesting, and make it palatable to the general public in terms that are very understandable.”
A visual learner herself, Gracie has spent years photographing more than 1,400 species of wildflowers at different stages of their growth.
“I like to show things in photos,” she said. “I find that if you see something, you’ll remember it more easily, so I try to photograph things that I’m researching. That can be a lot of fun, but it can be very time-consuming as well.”
Learning the story of a plant may also help a wildflower enthusiast remember details that would otherwise be easily forgotten. For example, Sanguinaria canadensis, commonly called bloodroot, got its name from the blood-red sap it exudes when the plant is pierced or broken. This sap, which is toxic to humans, flows through all parts of the plant, not just its root, as the common name might imply.
One of the first plants to emerge in springtime and blooming by the end of March, bloodroot flowers open and close depending on the temperature and available sunlight. Their flowers stay closed at night and on cloudy days, when pollinators are inactive, and open on sunny days that reach over 46 degrees Fahrenheit, when flies can pollinate its flowers. Other important pollinators for this plant, native bees, cannot fly if the air temperature drops below 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
“This plant was very important to Native Americans as a source of dye,” Gracie said. “It’s a very long-lasting dye, and was used not only to paint their bodies, but to color basketry materials and porcupine quills.”
Native Americans also used the plant medicinally, as a treatment for sore throats. The plant would intersect with human history again in the late 20th century.
“Back in 1990 it was discovered that a component of the sap in this plant, sainguinarine, was very effective in preventing the buildup of dental plaque,” Gracie said. “So we put it into toothpaste and mouthwash. When it was further studied and after people had used it for a number of years, it was found that people were developing these white plaques in the soft tissue of their mouths.” These lesions, called oral leukoplakia, can develop into oral cancer. In 2001, soon after the connection between sanguinarine and oral leukoplakia was confirmed, it was removed from the market. Sanguinarine is currently being evaluated for different medicinal uses.
Other plants’ stories, like that of Dicentra cucullaria, or Dutchman’s-breeches, involve their specific relationship to queen bumblebees, which emerge from overwintering at the same time the flower blooms and are uniquely strong enough to pry open its flowers. The queen bees feed on the nectar and bring the pollen back to their underground nests for their larvae.
ADAPTING TO THE FOREST
Many spring wildflowers emerge early in the season, before the forest’s trees leaf out and shade the ground. These wildflowers, called ephemerals, have a very short life cycle above the ground.
“They flower, fruit, go to seed and then the entire plant dies back all in a matter of weeks,” Gracie said. “A month or two later, you would never know that the plant was there.” But below ground the plant is storing energy for the next year’s bloom.
The forest floor is rich with humus—a topsoil of decaying organic matter, like leaves—which provides nutrients and a microclimate slightly warmer than the air higher up. Many wildflowers can thrive in a home garden if these conditions are replicated.
GETTING STARTED WITH WILDFLOWERS
Beginning as a self-taught wildflower enthusiast Gracie gathered expertise, qualifications and, eventually, a degree in Botany, and worked in the education and research programs at the New York Botanic Garden and wrote two books on native wildflowers. Gracie recommends anyone with an interest in wildflowers start by taking a walk.
“There are a lot of local conservation organizations, land trusts and Audubon centers which host wildflower walks where you might be able to get out there with someone knowledgeable,” Gracie said. “To see specific plants, I would recommend Mt. Cuba because there is so much that has been planted there.”
Mt. Cuba Center’s annual Wildflower Celebration, which features a variety of spring wildflowers and family-friendly activities, is free to the public and will take place on Sunday, April 23 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Carol Gracie, wildflower ecologist and author of Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast (Princeton University Press, 2012) will speak at Mt. Cuba Center on Saturday, February 11 from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. at Wildflower Ecology: A Naturalist’s Perspective ($20) part of the Winter Lecture Series. Snow date for the event is Sunday, February 12. Register here or call 302.239.8807.