By Michael De Rosa
Four seasons have passed since the world locked down, and my obsession with wildflowers began. When we walk, I am now irresistibly drawn to photograph anything not green. And before COVID-19, in that period between wakefulness and sleep, my mind might turn to work or future travel. Instead, buzzing through my mind — was the yellow flower I saw, with four petals, a greater celandine or a celandine wood-poppy?
How did it start? My wife Norma had already retired, and I would retire at the end of June 2020. Future trips postponed or canceled with the Pandemic declaration in March 2020. We decided that since we could no longer travel, we would walk every day. First, we walked in our Delaware County, Pennsylvania neighborhood, discovering a small church we didn’t know existed, looking much as it did before suburban spread. Next, we walked the Chester Creek Trail about ten minutes away. Spotting some wildflowers, I pulled out my cell phone and snapped some photos. Hooked — as with eating potato chips or collecting refrigerator magnets, I couldn’t stop at just one picture.
Over several hundred walks, we have watched as the wildflowers changed with the seasons — discovered species of wildflowers new to me on many of our walks. I started to take a greater interest in all the creatures that shared the habitat with the flowering plants, taking pictures to document and help ID them.
When we saw our first evening primrose, our excitement turned to wonder as one flower turned into a small field of yellow — finding a pink primrose moth resting inside one of the blossoms after a night of feeding. Some of the flower explosions were of native wildflowers: primroses, blue violets, and purple Jacob’s-Ladder. Others were of invasives: yellow lesser celandine, blue Asiatic dayflower, and white multiflora rose. A single orange California poppy escaped from a nearby garden. On one walk, I spotted almost three-dozen kinds of wildflowers — half non-native.
Walking along the paths, we flushed the occasional deer, shared the trail with squirrels and chipmunks. Movement in the grass might catch my eye, but often only glimpsed a bit of fur or tail. We heard more birds than we saw. A close up view of a blue-gray gnatcatcher or a scarlet tanager made our day. Birds were not the only creatures out of sight.
Unbeknownst to us, as we walked, dramas of life and death were happening all around us. Occasionally the curtain would lift for us to see: A turtle burying her eggs by the side of the trail high above Chester Creek and safely out of the way of floods. On the other side of the ledger of life and death, we watched a carrion beetle with a black body and light-colored head, come across the asphalt to join other beetles and some flies, recycling a dead mouse lying on the grass.
We heard it from 200-feet away before we saw it, a spring vernal pool, cattails gone to seed, filled with frogs loudly croaking, pick me, pick me. Soon the pool would be mostly silent, only the basso profundo jug-o-rum of bullfrogs breaking the silence. Most of the frogs had, after mating, left for their homes in the woods. The only sign they had been there, masses of floating eggs that would soon hatch into tadpoles.
Flowers drew our attention and that of the different creatures that used them for food, shelter, or to ambush prey that visited the plants. The most important for the plants were the insect pollinators. That as the days grew warmer, more and more of them flying around the flowers.
Butterflies were the stars, showstoppers as they danced from blossom to blossom. Cabbage whites with black spots on their wings, their pupae overwintered, hatching in March — the first butterflies of spring. Butterflies, being cold-blooded, need to be warmed by the sun before they can start to move. Warm mornings or afternoons are best to see them in all their glory. Watch for yellow eastern tiger swallowtails and black swallowtails. If you are fortunate, their mating rituals as a male approaches a female, they fly together as he tries to seduce her with pheromones (chemical sexual attractants) exuded by the hair pencils on its abdomen. Monarchs came in late summer, stopping to sip nectar from flowers and lay their eggs on milkweeds before continuing their migration. Monarch caterpillars and large (red) milkweed beetles vied to feed on the milkweed plants.
Smaller butterflies such as the pearl crescent, the small blue, and my favorite, the summer azure its fluttering wings the color of a light blue sky as it flew from blossom to blossom.
Honeybees and bumblebees made their rounds, buzzing around the flowers with bulging pollen baskets filled with yellow pollen, joined by native metallic green sweat bees, as big as a large grain of rice. Pollinators get nourishment from the flowers and, in turn, help pollinate them so they can set seeds.
The various species of goldenrods attract many kinds of insects, their yellow color signaling an all-you-can-eat buffet. Bees, of course, but not just the usual suspects, but also rosin bees and drone flies that mimic bees to avoid predators. Wasps feed their larvae with bits of dead insects. Adults feast on goldenrod nectar. Don’t be frightened; get in close and watch the show as — shiny black paper wasps girdled with light bands, dark mud daubers, and, if lucky, the lovely blue-winged wasps, sunlight making their wings shimmer — come to feed on the goldenrods.
Look carefully, you might be surprised by the sight of a locust borer in the goldenrod flowers — I was the first time I saw this handsome beetle with its yellow and black stripes, a “W” across its wings, and long antennae, hiding in plain sight. After the first sighting, I could almost always find a borer eating pollen from the goldenrod blossoms. Borers lay their eggs on the bark of trees where they hatch, and the emerging larvae damage the tree by boring into it and building tunnels.
From time to time, we would spot a green or brown praying mantis looking to ambush prey. At 3-4 inches long and, unlike most of the insects we saw, very approachable, enabling you to get close enough to see their triangular heads and googly eyes. A praying mantis stands out, not the tiny snails I found because I could see their dark shapes through translucent leaves.
Mushrooms in all their varied shapes and colors, with one great find of a patch of Amanita jacksonii. We watched their progress from when they looked like white eggs that opened to reveal a mushroom with a red convex top that flattened out into an orange disc. Then after three days — they had disappeared. Did some brave forager pick them? Even though they belong to the toxic Amanita family (one of its members is known as the Death Angel), they are supposed to be edible.
We walked through fall as flowers disappeared, leaving their seed heads to mark where once they bloomed. Following the Scandinavian dictum on winter — there is no bad weather, just bad clothing — layered up and kept on walking. Weather dictated what we wore and when we walked — late on winter afternoons, early in late spring or summer to escape the heat.
Watched as small flocks of dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows searched for seeds after snowfalls. With no flowers, insects disappeared. Small mammals denned up for the winter. The scents that perfumed the warm breezes of spring and summer were replaced by the crisp cold airs of winter. But the dark-green kidney-shaped leaves of garlic mustard and the velvety-green leaf rosettes of mulleins promise of the spring to come.
Before we walked sporadically, changes from walk to walk were abrupt. As if we had started reading a book and then continued reading by randomly picking a section until we got to the end. With almost daily walks, we have a sense of the gradual changes taking place through the seasons, from one spring to the next or at other nearby locations — notice the small wonders that abound around us. One flower became many, replaced as they faded. Never having tended a garden, these changes were revelatory.
With the warmth of approaching spring, we started to open up our layers, then shed them until we wore only one. The calendar said spring, but plants and animals said not yet. Spring 2021 started later than last year’s. Snowdrops, white crocus, and skunk cabbage flowers were already gone the previous year by mid-March.
Wildflowers, though, are much more abundant. Last year there was almost no snow, but this winter made up for it. Snow provides the insulation and moisture that many seeds need to germinate. Resulting in mini super blooms, masses of lesser celandines seemed to be everywhere — forming seas of yellow along the flood plain of Chester Creek.
The story has begun anew as the sun starts its second complete orbit since the beginning of the Pandemic. Winter birds have given way to song sparrows, bluebirds, and robins. Spring beauties, violets, trout lilies, and other ephemeral spring wildflowers have come and gone to be replaced by those of late spring — welcomed as we would old friends.