Change, more than anything else, is the quality that brings me back to landscapes day after day. And, as an impatient lover of change, few things bring me joy like the spring onslaught of ephemeral woodland flowers. This week, I’d like to draw attention to three spring ephemerals which I encountered at the Arkansas Arboretum just outside of Little Rock.
The term “arboretum” conjures up something quite grand. A reserve of soaring trees and careful botanical curation, with QR codes and every species immaculately labeled with provenance and date of accession. The Arkansas Arboretum isn’t like that. It’s a relatively small parcel of forest tacked on the back of Pinnacle Mountain. The “Arboretum” park of its name comes from the fact that the site is topographically and ecologically diverse. As one walks along the .75-mile trail, there are labelled 6 different zones that represent different ecological regions of Arkansas, such as the Ozark Plateau.
My primary reason for visiting the Arboretum this week was triggered by a local friend posting photos of the Yellow Troutlily (Erythronium rostratum) in full flower last weekend. This species has an unusual range, growing primarily in Arkansas and northern Alabama, with some straying into Missouri, Texas, Tennessee, and Louisiana. This species is unusual amongst erythronium in that its starry yellow flowers face upright, rather than hanging down (like a cyclamen). The flower habit gives the plant a highly distinctive look, with a cheerier, less modest disposition than the northwest US species. The bright gold of the flowers’ interiors shows to good effect, with the pale fawn-pink on the outside of the petals only evident as flowers open and fade. The foliage is what you’re expect from an Erythronium, subtly mottled with dark-on-light green ovoid leaves.
I was amazed at the abundance of Erythroniums at the site - massive drifts more than 20 foot square. My timing was a bit off to capture any photos of their full bloom. On my first midweek visit, there were only a few blossoms left. True to their ephemeral nature, by the weekend, there wasn’t a flower to be seen. In cultivation notes for eventually growing this species, all of the large drifts occur in the lower forested land - almost floodplain conditions - near the stream which runs through the arboretum. I didn’t see any specimens in the higher or hillier parts of the Arboretum. So, it seems that a moist loam and filtered shade will foster the best growth of Erythronium.
At the edges of the floodplain, but increasing along banks at the edge of paths where leaf-mould has gathered, I found sprinkled populations of rue anemone (Anemonella thalictroides). Unusually, compared to the plants I’ve often seen in cultivation, the plants at the arboretum had flowers that were all varying degrees of pink. Some were pink-blushed, but many were a full Mary Kay cadillac pink. I’ve been looking for information on the distribution of the pink- versus white-colored forms of rue anemone, but haven’t found anything yet. For those less familiar with this plant, it’s a dainty eastern US native with foliage that resembles meadow rue (Thalictrum sp.). The leaves pop up sporadically in mid-spring, shortly decking themselves with abundant tiny multi-petalled flowers that look like something off your grandmother’s wallpaper pattern. They cavort happily through the crowns of larger perennials, then die back within a few weeks to tiny tubers - ready to bounce back the next spring.
Even higher, on the crests of hills and at the tops of ridges, I found a strange plant that I didn’t recognize. It had large juicy rosettes of leaves - almost like a Virginia bluebell (Mertensia virginica) or Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia) - but small white to pale blue flowers. Yep, that’s right - acid wash denim colors. Consulting with the ever-expert Jared Barnes (thanks, Jared!) and big brother Google, I’ve deduced that they are the Wild Comfrey or Blue Houndstooth (Cynoglossum virginianum). This is a species that I know little about and haven’t seen widely in the horticulture trade. Strange, since it’s blue and every horticultural retailer knows that blue sells - especially blue native perennials for shade. I have grown its relative the Chinese Forget Me Not (Cynoglossum amiable) which is an annual, great for cut-flower growing, and with a much truer blue flower. I’m curious to learn more about this Wild Comfrey. Its foliage is most striking (see photo below). Please let me know if you have experience growing it or observing it in the wild.
These three plants are the stars of this week’s wildflower walk at the Arkansas Arboretum. You can find a more regular visual record of my jaunts into the wild on on Instagram. I am aiming to add to this blog several times a week - please join me again as I continue to explore the ever-surprising ways of plants and landscapes!