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Wildflowers, the Indicator Species

Paul-W, Flikr Creative Commons

Lovely woodland wildflowers are reliable “indicators” of soil moisture, fertility and light conditions. Wildflowers on the forest floor repeat patterns seen elsewhere each spring. The flowers speak to the patterns of why plants and trees grow where they do in our forests. 

"Red Trillium" and the small delicate pink and white candy-striped "Spring Beauty" bloom in enriched soil sites. Here leaves collect against stonewalls beneath sugar maples, white ash and basswood which also indicate fertile loam soils. On the opposite end of the soil spectrum, bright yellow "Coltsfoot" looks like a coarse, stubby Dandelion. It grows from nutrient-poor sand and silt found in roadside ditches. Its name derives from the notched shape of its leaves.

"Pink Ladyslipper" and the vast carpet of "Canada Mayflower" are able to grow in low pH, acidic soils beneath oaks, pines or spruce. Ladyslippers prefer partial sunlight whereas Mayflowers tolerate deep shade beneath the closed canopy of pine or spruce. Five-pointed "Starflower" also grows in acidic conifer needles in shade. Lemon-yellow flowers of "Bellwort" also known as "Wild Oats" utilize temporary sunlight reaching the forest floor beneath hardwoods which have yet to leaf-out. 

To learn the spring wildflowers is to also learn what they say about their soil and forest habitat preferences. My advice: take a springtime walk in the woods. Flop down in dry leaves or needles and admire the fleeting beauty from the perspective of a tiny wild bumble bee on a warm, sunny spring morning!

Naturalist Dave Anderson is Senior Director of Education for The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, where he has worked for over 30 years. He is responsible for the design and delivery of conservation-related outreach education programs including field trips, tours and presentations to Forest Society members, conservation partners, and the general public.

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