May 21, 2018
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Spring wildflowers

By Brad Viles, Special to the News

The phrase “stop and smell the flowers” must have been coined by a hiker. When you’re hiking, stopping and smelling the flowers comes easy. After all, no one ever accused hikers of participating in an adrenaline sport. The pace is just way too slow to increase that adrenaline flow.

Slow enough to watch the growing flowers in spring. From the earliest part of the season, as soon as the lawns get green, wildflowers start to grow and bloom. It seems that everywhere you turn in the woods and mountains of Maine different varieties pop up almost daily.

Learning to identify flowers can be a way to measure the passage of the season. It’s as easy as buying a field guide and packing it with you on a hike. Most guides are organized by color. The best ones have full color plates and most include some scientific info and a glossary of terms. But you don’t need to know all those to enjoy the wildflowers in Maine.

After a few hiking seasons you start to see a pattern to the wildflower blooms. The earlier varieties are small and white, the most common color of wildflowers. One variety of those early blooming flowers is called “Quaker Ladies”: bluets that cover fields, and cleared spots near trailheads and roadsides. Only a few inches high, these clumps of white to pale blue, four-petal flowers show up around the first week in May. They are a sure sign that more flowers will bloom soon.

In the woods, painted trilliums start to grow almost as soon as the snow melts. The 6-to-8-inch flower blooms from about the first of this month to mid-May and lasts into June. They grow from the forest floor up to an elevation of about 2,200 feet. I’ve found them on Pleasant Pond Mountain in Caratunk in full bloom next to a patch of late snow. They’re one of the showiest spring flowers with a distinctive blossom of three upturned white petals with pink or purple streaks.

Soon after the trilliums bloom, the wood sorrel starts to flower. Wood sorrel is easy to identify. Its leaves are the shape of a shamrock. The flowers are small on this common low-growing plant of about 3 inches. The color of the five-petal blossom varies from white to pink. It grows in carpets in places along the forest floor along streams and up to elevations of around 3,000 feet.

So many flowers bloom in May it seems that they all flower at once. Look for pink lady slippers, sometimes called moccasin flowers, in low areas in shaded moist soil. They are one of the tallest early blooming plants, anywhere from 6- to 24-inches high.

Blue bead lily is another tall plant that seems to flower as soon as it reaches its height of 6 to 18 inches. It too likes moist, shaded areas on the forest floor. Blue beads are more recognizable after their flowers drop in late June. The plant forms one or two dark blue berries on top of its stalk. But in May the showy plant blooms with two trumpet-shaped, inch-long, yellow blossoms.

One of the smallest relatives of the dogwood tree is bunchberry, a ground-hugging plant that forms white blossoms that imitate flowers. The flowers are actually leaf bracts, a type of modified leaf that hides the real flower in the middle of the blossom. Bunchberry drops the leaf bracts around mid-summer, and a clump of orange berries appears in the middle of the plant, giving it the bunchberry name.

A lot of the common names for wildflowers are derived from their shape. One of those, the starflower, couldn’t be called a more appropriate name. The small white flowers grow in pairs on a stalk only a few inches high. The flowers are shaped like a star with seven to eight white petals. Usually they appear in the same locations as wood sorrel. They start to bloom late this month into July.

Not all the early blooming plants are small. Mountain laurel grows to about 5- to 10-feet high, like a shrub, with rhododendron shaped leaves and white clusters of blossoms. The plant grows in clumps along mountain tops below treeline. A similar plant, sheep laurel, looks a lot like mountain laurel; only its flowers are pink. It is found everywhere from streams to mountain tops.

Some plants aren’t just for viewing. Some, like Labrador tea, which is also shrub height, provides food for animals. Moose’s favorite browse is Labrador tea, and its white flowers can be found around ponds, in spruce forests, and up to 3,500 feet in high elevation bogs.

These are just a few of the types of early blooming flowers you’ll find along Maine’s trails. By taking the time to “smell the flowers,” you find that a hike is often about more than taking in the view. It’s sometimes about taking as long as you can along the way to the view. A hike doesn’t have to be about reaching the summit at all if you take the time to smell the flowers.

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