Something Wild: Forest restoration brings back native wildflowers

story by Bernard Brown | photo by Jen Britton. Spring beauties beginning to bloom from the brush of the forest.Pink buds like miniature tulips reached for the sky from the gap in each bloodroot’s single leaf. This was the first time in my life that I’d noticed them. I spend a lot of time in the woods, at least for an urbanite, but apparently they’ve been the wrong woods.  

On this spring morning, photographer Jen Britton and I were tagging along with Joanne Donohue, Manager of Land Restoration for the Schuylkill Environmental Education Center, on a wildflower (“spring ephemeral,” if you want to sound like a botanist) tour.

Spring is the season for woodland wildflowers. Not much light reaches the forest floor once the canopy leafs out, so native understory plants are forced to sprout and flower before the spring sun fades to summer shadow.

Trillium, a perennial ground dwelling species begins to bud.Elsewhere in Philadelphia, forest floors are green carpets with cute little yellow flowers: all the invasive Eurasian species lesser celandine. It looks lush, but it’s a boring wasteland compared to the variety of native wildflowers that bloom each spring in intact or restored woodlands.

Donohue continuously pointed out plants, invisible at first, but obvious everywhere once she had shown me the first one. The blue cohash with its leaves held in like little purple hands. Then the twin leafs, the dicentra, the toothwort, spring beauties, Jacob’s ladders, the bank of blue bells, the trout lilies’ mottled leaves poking through the leaf litter along the stream; and of course, the bloodroots holding their own little stretch of ravine.

Typical of land in the Delaware Valley, most of the Schuylkill Center’s grounds was farmed for centuries. Native woodland plants that evolved on old forest floors lost out to exotic invaders better adapted to disturbed soil. This is why we found woodland phlox, trillium, blue bells, and bloodroots on the steep sides of ravines, where it never made any sense to farm.

It took a lot more effort to bring back the flowers in Penn’s Native Acres, a restored forest tract at the Center. Staff and volunteers have been fighting history by planting natives and removing exotics, but they have also been battling a diabolical duo of seemingly innocuous villains. Exotic night crawlers (our forests have no native earthworms) chow through leaf litter and tear up the dense networks of fungi that knit together healthy forest soil. More obvious and controllable are the deer. Not long ago, at 10 times the ideal population density they were stripping everything they could eat, which was mostly the native species, leaving the exotic plants they couldn’t stomach to thrive. The Center has since reduced the herd to a manageable size, and erected a tall fence to protect Penn’s Native Acres.

The results are shockingly obvious once you exit the fence and find yourself looking at chest-high banks of multiflora rose, a vile invader with savage thorns. Even worse is the tangled jungle around the ruins above the Springhouse Pond: invasive vines like wisteria and mile-a-minute scaling other invasives like trees of heaven. This kind of mess is sadly typical throughout our region, but if you have a chance this spring, I urge you to step inside the fence at Penn’s Native Acres and take a look at what the woods can be.

Bernard Brown is an amateur field herper, bureaucrat and founder of the PB&J Campaign, a movement focused on the benefits of eating lower on the food chain.