Bluebells Ringing on Sycamore Island

by Barbara Tufty

Sycamore Islander, June 1999

The bluebells on the island were so profuse and spectacular that bright morning of April 18, I could clearly see them even as we walked down the steep bank of the opposite shore toward the ferry. And as hostess Pat Roth swung the raft hand over hand along the rope against the stiff cold wind and running current, I could hardly wait until we touched land and I could walk out among them.

The splendid swath of bluebells spread across the island in patches so numerous and thick, I had to step carefully to keep from treading on them. Then I had to be cautious about the hundreds of delicate spring beauties that spread in pale pink and white patches among the bells.

As I edged cautiously around two Canada geese feeding on island tufts of grass in the sea of bluebells, I stopped and easily counted some ten different species of wildflowers within a diameter of 10-15 feet around me. I felt I was standing on a 13th century French tapestry in the middle of a thick carpet of wildflowers. Here at my feet were medleys of snow-on-the-mountain, several species of violet, common deep purple and cream, and wild blue phlox. Indian strawberries were just beginning to show their yellow blossoms.

Some plants were not yet in bloom, but the dappled leaves of trout lily were out, as were the finely divided leaves of Dutchman’s breeches—or maybe of squirrel corn—both have similar leaves, and it was too early for me to identify them—maybe both grow on the island. Early meadow rue, Solomon’s seal, false Solomon’s seal, water hemlock, and Virginia waterleaf also had not yet blossomed, although I could see tiny green buds dangling beneath the stem of the Solomon’s seal. Jewelweed was also spreading out its pale green round leaves. Farther along downstream I held my breath at the sight of an uncommon treasure—three dark maroon erect blossoms of the trillium called toadshade!

I continued to walk on, amazed at the wealth of Sycamore Island’s wildflowers, most of which were native species..Tufts of tiny pale yellow corydalis were tucked here and there, and gill-over-the-ground was showing purple.

Of course there were a few rogue villains showing their heads; the delicate white crowns of garlic mustard were springing up everywhere—a member of the mustard family that indeed does taste somewhat like garlic and mustard! But it is an alien, not a native wildflower. Pull it up before it continues aggressively taking over the indigenous wildflowers. The lesser celandine, that yellow buttercup species shining like molten gold, also is an aggressive alien, Enjoy them in small doses, but don’t let them spread over your island. They are bad news, and already are causing problems in local areas like along the towpath or in Rock Creek Park where they are pushing out the native wildflowers. Later on in summer, this lesser celandine disappears into the earth---leaves, blossoms and aII---but their roots remain flourishing underground to create vigorous plants that pop up next spring, taking more space.

Thank you, Pat! Thank you, Sycamore Island!

All together, here’s what I counted in about half an hour—and I’m sure I may have missed many more.

Virginia bluebell— Mertensia virginica
Spring beauty— Claytonia virginica
Snow-on-the-mountain— Euphorbia marginata (escaped from cultivation)
Aborted buttercup— Ranunculus abortivus
Yellow corydalis— Corydalis flavula
Wild strawberry— Fragaria virginiana
Solomon’s seal— Polygonatum biflorum
Toadflax—Trillium sessile
Gill-over-the-ground; ground ivy— Glechoma hederaceae
Henbit— Lamium amplexicaule (introduced)
Indian strawberry— Duchesnea indica (introduced)
Lesser celandine— Ranunculus ficaria (introduced)
Garlic mustard— Alliaria petiolata (introduced)

Leaves of : Dutchman’s breeches— Dicentra cucullaria
Squirrel corn— Dicentra canadensis
Early meadow rue— Thalictrum dioicum
Virginia waterleaf— Hydrophyllum virginianum
or perhaps it is
Appendaged waterleaf— H. appenediculatum
False Solomon’s seal—Smilacina racemosa
Perfoliate bellwort— Uvularia perfoliata
Jewelweed, spotted or pale— Impatiens ssp.

Wildflowers: A Sycamore Heritage

The Sycamore Island Club sponsored Wild Flower Walks in the spring for many years, a tradition initiated by Islander Phil Stone and continued until recently by Ellen Richards and Joan Heideman. Phil was a local authority on trees and flowers, and his walks attracted more than just Sycamore members. People would meet on the towpath at the Island when the bluebells were in bloom and then, rain or shine, the group would walk north until hunger drove them back to the Island for a picnic and a continuation of the flower tour.

A very careful naturalist, very strict, as Joan recalls, Phil required a plant to be in bloom for an identification. So does visitor Barbara Tufty--when the plants under consideration are Squirrel Corn and Dutchman's Breeches!

Barbara Tufty, who is Conservation Editor for the Audubon Naturalist Society, is a co-author of Finding Wildflowers in the Washington-Baltimore Area (Johns Hopkins University Press). We thank Barbara for her article, which reminds us of a wonderful Sycamore Island tradition started by Phil Stone and continued by Ellen Richards and Joan Heideman, faithful guides to our wildflowers.

— Jane Winer