Wildlife and wildflowers abound on the nature trail at Elkin Municipal Park, part of the E&A Rail Trail and Mountains-to-Sea Trail. Those taking it slow on the trail can glimpse a number of lovely flowers as well as many species of birds. Here are just a few of the plants and birds that visitors to the park can enjoy. How many have you seen?
In early spring the following plants can be seen. As spring turns to summer, even more flowers make appearances along the path.
Dimpled Trout Lily Erythronium umbilicatum — It’s both one of the first wildflowers to bloom in spring and one of the most beautiful with nodding yellow flowers that close up tight at night and gradually open the next morning. On warmer days, look for bumblebees visiting the nectar-rich flowers.
Trout lily is a classic example of a spring ephemeral. It emerges from an underground bulb as the soil begins to warm in late winter and dies back in spring as the canopy trees leaf out (thereby shading the forest floor). In a matter of just a few weeks it emerges, leafs out, flowers, sets fruit, and matures seeds. The rest of the year (10-plus months) it persists underground as a dormant bulb. So, enjoy this plant while you can as it will soon retreat to its underground refuge. Common in along the trail in scattered locations.
Round-lobed Hepatica Hepatica nobilis var. obtusa (Hepatica americana, Anemone americana) — The curious name “liverleaf” comes from the look of the lobed leaves in winter, which turn reddish brown, the color of raw liver. The common name “hepatica” amounts to the same thing, for it also means “liver” (as in “hepatitis”). “Bisexual flowers with pink, purple, blue, or white sepals and three green bracts appear singly on hairy stems from late winter to spring. Butterflies, moths, bees, flies and beetles are known pollinators. The leaves are basal, leathery, and usually three-lobed, remaining over winter.” Although the leaves you may find in early spring are darkly colored (last year’s leaf), the flowering season gives way to the production of new green leaves that are bright and very attractive. Uncommon, look for it on the high bank across from the first gong, second old railroad cut and along the cutover trail.
Virginia Heartleaf Hexastylis virginica — Virginia heartleaf flowers appear early in the spring (April-May) but they are mostly invisible: they grow very low to the ground are often covered by leaf litter. If you are willing to dig around for them, you will see that the flower is a brown-to reddish-purple cylinder with three tiny lobes — they look like little jugs. Uncommon along the trail and found on steep slopes and moist hillsides.
Shining Club Moss Huperzia lucidula — Clubmosses are primitive plants. This means they do not have flowers or seeds, but reproduce through spores. Clubmosses are evergreen, so they can be found and identified all year. They are short plants, and a lot of them are trailing, or long and low like a ground-clinging vine. Historically, people used clubmosses for Christmas decorations, and the spores, which are quite flammable, were used in firework production. Shining clubmoss is a clonal evergreen “herb.” It most commonly spreads by layering. The aboveground shoots in the photo are 10 to 15 centimeters long and are partially buried each year by the deciduous litterfall. The buried part of the stem then forms roots and the end continues to grow. Thus the plant “moves” outward from an originating plant. The stem forks dichotomously. Spores are produced in the axils of the leaves and the masses of sporangia are the yellow dots at the base of each leaf.
Fan Club Moss — Diphasiastrum (Lycopodium) digitatum is known as groundcedar, running cedar or crowsfoot. A creeping, evergreen, rhizomatous clubmoss; giving the appearance of neat and orderly, miniature trees. Much used for holiday decoration as wreaths. This is a Lycopod rather than a flowering seed plant. Lycopods are among the plants known as fern-allies. Like ferns, it reproduces via spores from the club-like appendages above the plant. Fan Clubmoss resembles a dwarf cedar (Juniperus) or another conifer, but it is not closely related to these seed-bearing woody plants. Plants in the Clubmoss family are some of the oldest vascular plants on Earth. During prehistoric times, some members of this family were tree-sized, growing alongside giant horsetails and tree ferns. Some of these prehistoric plants were eventually transformed into the extensive coal beds that our civilization uses today.
Christmas Fern Polystichum acrostichoides — It’s unclear how the Christmas fern got its name. Some think it’s due to the shape of its leaflets, which resemble a stocking, an Elf shoe or a winter sleigh. It could also be that the Christmas fern is one of the few woodland plants still green in December and all winter long. Regardless of how it got its name, the Christmas fern is one of the most common ferns in eastern United States. It can be found in a wide variety of habitats and locations, particularly on shady hillsides and wooded stream banks. It typically grows in a fountain-like clump to 2 feet tall and features leathery, lance-shaped, evergreen fronds. Crosiers (young fiddleheads) in spring are silvery and scaled. Sori appear on the undersides of the pinnae only at the ends (last 1/3) of the fronds. Because the Christmas fern forms a dense covering over the soil surface, large colonial masses or even a small cluster of two or three can help stabilize the soil and provide excellent erosion control. It also generates a protective, concealing habitat for a number of native ground-feeding and ground-nesting bird species. Evergreen fronds provide good winter interest for the landscape and are a great addition for the backyard garden.
Bloodroot Sanguinaria Canadensis — Bloodroot is a stemless, rhizomatous, a native wildflower which blooms in early spring in rich woods and along streams throughout the State. Typically rises 6 to 10 inches tall and spreads over time in the wild to form large colonies on the forest floor. Each flower stalk typically emerges in spring wrapped by one palmate, deeply-scalloped, grayish-green, basal leaf. As the flower blooms, the leaf unfurls. Each flower stalk produces a solitary, 2 inches wide, 8 to 10 petaled, 1.5-inch diameter, white flower with numerous yellow center stamens. Flowers open up in sun but close at night, and are very short-lived (one to two days). Leaves continue to grow in size after bloom (sometimes to as much as 9 inches across) and remain attractive until mid to late summer when the plant goes dormant. All parts of the plant exude a bright reddish-orange sap when cut, hence the common name. Sap was once used by Native Americans for dyes. Rootstock is caustic and poisonous if ingested, but has been used medicinally for its antiseptic and emetic properties. Common in scattered locations along the trail.
Plant information courtesy of Joe Mickey, treasurer of the Elkin Valley Trails Association and retired fishery biologist and watershed enhancement coordinator with the NC Wildlife Resources Commission.