After a milder-than-usual winter, one wonders whether spring will have started up sooner than in the past. We shall see. Over the COVID years, many of us took to walking more, and we could enjoy the changes of season often and directly. Right now, warmer weather and longer days draw us outdoors even more. In Bard’s early spring, garden bulbs send up fresh, green leaves and colorful flowers, a welcome contrast to the darker, grayed tones of winter. Less obvious signs of spring on campus peek out now, too, among woodland wildflowers along Cruger Island Road. Take a look. Park your car in the southernmost parking lot on Robbins Road near the old gatehouse. If you’re lucky, clusters of purply-blue dwarf iris will welcome you as they did last year during the first week of April. (If you want a shorter walk, drive down Cruger Island Road past the last dorm cluster, and on your right, there is a pull-out that will hold several parked cars.)
Walk past Ward Manor Gatehouse and west down Cruger Island Road towards Tivoli Bays south. No need to tramp into the forest itself. Blue-violet scilla may catch your eye along the verge. These little cultivars have escaped into the woodlands. They are hardy, tolerant of the cold, and spread easily, and critters from voles to deer have no interest in them. They thrive in the wild. Likely along the verge you will also come across wildflowers in a not dissimilar color, common blue violets. Their scent, purply blue color, and the stripes on the lower petal draw pollinators in for the nectar. Historically, people have used violets for food and medicine. Their flowers and leaves are edible. Purportedly, a half cup of violet leaves has as much vitamin C as three oranges. Note that wild violets are totally unrelated to African violets, which are NOT edible. Need I say, do not eat any plant unless you are 100% sure you have identified it correctly.
Yellow, Red, and White Wildflowers
Hopefully, you will see other ephemera along the way, wildflowers whose blossoms and foliage will disappear when the trees above fully leaf out, blocking the sunlight. Look for the little yellow trout lilies growing in clusters; heads bowed over. When their six petals spread apart, you can see six long stamens with yellow or rusty-red anthers hanging from the center of the blossom. Trout lilies are named for their leaves, which are speckled, seemingly like trout. The Haudenosaunee used poultices of smashed roots of the trout lily to treat swelling. Some deer and plenty of chipmunks feed on trout lilies.
My personal favorite on this walk is trillium, another member of the lily family. If you’re lucky, you will see both the white and the dark red, each with its recognizable three petals. They are a protected species, so tread carefully if you want to get close. (And, if you want some for your garden, there are reputable nurseries where you can purchase them. Please do not disturb the ones you see in the wild.) Trillium has been used medicinally as an astringent, coagulant, expectorant, and uterine stimulant. Note its common names, birthwort and Indian balm.
Keep your eyes peeled for the clear white flowers of the bloodroot, particularly eye-catching on a sunny day. The blossom usually has eight petals distributed symmetrically with a group of yellow stamens in the center of the blossom. It may blossom for up to two weeks, closing up at night as well as on overcast days. This member of the poppy family grows in colonies. It is the reddish color of the liquid it exudes when cut that gives it its common name. While it contains a skin irritant, Indigenous people used its dye for basket materials, on clothing, in body paint, and as insect repellent. One does not often come across bloodroot, and it is a protected plant in the wild. This is another plant that needs to be left undisturbed.
Along the way, you may also come across coltsfoot, a non-native plant introduced by European settlers. It’s a bright yellow, almost dandelion-like flower that shoots up and opens before its foliage grows. The leaves, when they come up, are said to resemble a colt’s foot. While people have used it as food and also medicinally, there are warnings about its toxicity in large amounts.
When the road appears to end at the bottom of the hill, you have two options. If the tide is low, you can continue straight out along the path west into the bay itself, and your vista opens up to the south. You may find some coltsfoot along the edge of this path as well as other signs of spring growth. If you lose your balance in some of the mucky parts of the trail, you may end up in the mud as my husband Mark did once. Yuk. When you return to the foot of the road again, turn north and walk to where another viewpoint opens up, facing west and north across the marshes, a wonderful river valley view.
Don't Bruise the Skunk Cabbage!
Along this lower part, you are likely to see lots of skunk cabbage, which thrives in wetlands. One of few plants capable of thermogenesis, skunk cabbage warms frozen ground, and their version of a flower emerges early. The spathe, a hood-like leaf, surrounds the cylindrical spadix that contains a bunch of little flowers packed in together. Later large green leaves grow in a circular fashion opening out from its base. My mother used to transplant little, early skunk cabbage and set them in a low bowl on the dining table to welcome spring. If you do this, be careful not to bruise it as that is when your nose will tell you why it is named as it is—Symplocarpus foetidus. Indigenous people cooked and ate the roots. Leaves, stems, and flowers are toxic. Therefore I consider it quite amazing that various parts of the plant can be prepared in different ways to treat a range of wounds and symptoms, including headache, earache, bleeding, and skin and mouth sores.
As you make your way back up to where you parked your car, keep your eyes open for flowers you may not have noticed on your way downhill. If you’ve been lucky to find some of these early spring wildflowers, perhaps you’ll see others, too. A different vantage point may open your eyes anew. You can use one of the free plant identification apps (such as PlantNet or iNaturalist) as you walk—or you can Google them. There are also paid apps like PictureThis, which get excellent reviews. Take a photo of the foliage (if it has appeared) along with the blossom to assist in identification. Enjoy your walk—and welcome spring!