Threatened wildflowers

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(HOST) It’s the time of year when trilliums and Canada mayflowers are found in Vermont’s woodlands. Commentator Tom Slayton has been enjoying the spring wildflowers on his walks and has some thoughts about their fragile beauty.

(SLAYTON) “I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows, Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows….”

Like Shakespeare, who obviously knew the woods and meadows of Stratford-upon-Avon, many Vermonters have favorite places where they go to see wildflowers and enjoy the simple beauty of a wooded glen or isolated meadow.

For instance, I know a bank whereon the wild bloodroot blows, along with several lacy sprays of duthchman’s breeches. And I try to re- acquaint myself with these particular flowers every spring. A friend knows where to find spring beauties and trilliums, and another friend had a special sunny bank that once was covered with the tiny pink and blue blossoms of hepaticas.

Unfortunately, those hepaticas were bulldozed out of existence – a more and more common fate of wildflowers throughout the Northeast, according to a recent article in The New York Times.

It isn’t only development that’s encroaching on wildflowers; there’s a lot of damage being done by white-tailed deer. You might be surprised to know that one of the reasons Vermont has been less impacted than other Northeastern states is that deer hunting flourishes here. In fact, wildflower lovers ought to find themselves a deer hunter to hug! In states where deer are still actively hunted, like Vermont, wildflowers are surviving much better than in states where hunting is a thing of the past.

In more suburban places to our south, plants like red trillium – which are flowering right now in our Vermont woodlands – are being system- atically chewed to the ground by deer. They’re being lost at a rate four times faster than in places where deer are still being hunted, experts say.

Also, invasive foreign plants, like garlic mustard and stilt weed, are displacing less agressive native wildflowers wholesale. The smaller, more fragile native plants just cannot compete.

Though the loss of wildflowers is real, both in Vermont and elsewhere, it’s easy not to notice it. The delicate wildflowers of early spring – true spring ephemerals like trout lillies and dutchman’s breeches – blos- som and fade in the few tentative weeks of early spring. The rest of the year, they live underground.

There are those of us who love them for their fleeting beauty, but their very evanescence makes them doubly vulnerable to the many threats that our out-of-balance ecosystem has brought to the fragile under- story of the forest.

Another Vermonter, the late Sen. George D. Aiken, once wrote in his book Pioneering with Wildflowers, “I always regarded the wildflowers of the woods as my family, and rather felt it my duty to look after them as far as possible….” Aiken proposed wildflower preserves at the edge of every city and said that human people need closer acquaintance with wildflowers, which he called “nature’s people”.

Wise words. And a wise attitude from one of our forebears that could help today’s Vermonters protect the delicate wildflowers of early spring.

Tom Slayton is the editor of Vermont Life magazine. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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