There are few things that herald the coming of spring more than the first blooms of wildflowers.
The sandy Pine Barrens and the riverine habitat of the Quogue Wildlife Refuge create a unique environment which enables many interesting and diverse plants to thrive, all within 305 acres. Read on to find out where a few of our favorite spring bloomers can be seen!
Skunk Cabbage or Symplocarpus foetidus, is the earliest blooming wildflower on the Refuge. It favors wet environments, and can be seen in numbers along the boardwalk between the pond and the Nature Center. As early as February, the spathe, a mottled purple pod which looks alien in nature, will begin to emerge. As the weather warms, the pod will open to reveal a knob covered in small flowers and by late spring it will begin to unfurl long leaves which can grow up to 3 feet long. At the beginning of this process, the newly developed pods and flowers give off heat, warm enough to melt any surrounding snow. When bruised, its leaves release a fetid odor, an interesting adaptation used to attract pollinators. Although Skunk Cabbage is poisonous to mammals, it is an important food source for insects and certain birds, including geese!
Mayapple or Podophyllum peltatum was named because of its apple blossom like flower and its tendency to bloom in the month of May. It is an unusual looking plant which grows to be over a foot tall and has only two large leaves, each of which can reach up to 8 inches across. It has only one white flower which blooms at the crux of their stems. This plant favors slightly damp wooded environments and its range encompasses most of Eastern North America from Canada to Florida and west to Texas. All parts of this plant, excepting the fruits, are highly toxic if consumed. Derivatives of this plant have been used in chemotherapy to treat several types of cancer, and leukemia. The ripe fruit of Mayapple is a favored food of small mammals, primarily rodents who pluck them from their stems as soon as they reach ripeness, but are also used in jellies and jams.
Starflower or Trientalis borealis is a common wildflower which blooms in mid to late spring. The name borealis refers to its primarily northern distribution, where it can be found in both coniferous (like the Pine Barrens) and deciduous forests. Starflower favors damp environments, and is extremely shade tolerant. It grows low to the ground, reaching heights of 4 inches or less, has 5 to 9 leaves which grow from the very top of the stem and up to 3 star-like flowers. Each flower is bright white, with 5-7 petals, and up to 9 yellow stamens. The delicate white blooms of the starflower may remain for up to several weeks, and begin to wither during the warmer months of late spring and early summer.
The Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus or Opuntia humifusa is the only cactus to have a wide geographic range across Eastern North America. Prickly pear can be found in sandy fields and coastal dunes and is intolerant of shade. It has fleshy green pads covered in barbed spines. Their large yellow flowers typically bloom during the late spring to early summer and develop into juicy, edible fruits. On the Refuge this plant can be seen in the sandy field just before the bridge, where it grows in mats across the sandy soil.
The nectar of all of these plants is a food source for a plethora of insects, and a favorite of butterflies and bees alike!
By Kimberly Stever