It’s time to look for the spring wildflowers in Rock Creek Park. Don’t wait – they don’t last long.
They are called “ephemerals” because they bloom for a week or so, set seed quickly, and then the plants die back and vanish.
In early April, I look for spring beauties, bluebells and bloodroot along the trails. They will be followed by others as April progresses.
The spring beauty is fairly common. It’s a little plant with a pale pink bloom on a three-inch stem. It grows along the edge of trails or roadsides where it has both sun and shade. One small, specialized bee, andrena erigeniae, depends on it for pollen, but it thrives and you will usually find a group.
Bluebells are a stunning shade of blue you don’t want to miss. It’s a native plant that likes to grow near water – Rock Creek or the Potomac for example. There is a clump behind the Rock Creek Nature Center. It’s become a garden perennial sold by nurseries.
Bloodroot is hard to find. I remember my mother’s delight when she showed it to me years ago in one of the Cleveland, Ohio parks. Its flower, about one inch in diameter, sits on a six-inch stem, and the petals are stark white against the brown leaves below. It’s a member of the poppy family (whose stems usually ooze some sort of sap) and it’s called bloodroot because the root oozes a pale orange sap when cut.
Why are these plants in such a hurry?
These wildflowers must take advantage of the spring sun. They grow in woodlands that will be shady once the trees leaf out. They need the sun to photosynthesize and create the food chemicals they put in the seeds.
Since wildflowers were here long before the honeybees came to North America with settlers in the 1600s, they are pollinated by native bees, not honeybees. The native bees that pollinate these plants have a life cycle that brings them out in early spring. They too will lay eggs, then vanish when the flowers do.
Where to go
Wildflowers can be found along the trails in Rock Creek, but they have been badly hit by the deer. One good place nearby is Boundary Bridge. This is a pull-off parking lot on Rock Creek Parkway at the border with Maryland. The trail (view map) runs along the flood plain of the creek, a fertile spot, and in a few weeks will have blooming trout lilies, as well as bluebells, spring beauties, and maybe something I don’t expect.
The C&O canal is another great place for wildflowers. Here are photos of wildflowers you may see along the canal.