30 March 2011
Spring Has Sprung!
Great Falls National Park Mar27 - Images by Elijah Goodwin
Spring has officially arrived here in Northern Virginia (both literally by the calendar and biologically). The early spring wildflowers are out (and some have even almost gone by) at Great Falls National Park. Last Tuesday I took a hike with visiting relatives and was delighted to see many wildflowers in bloom. Despite fighting some sort of illness, I just had to go back and try to capture some images of the early spring wildflowers and vegetation the following weekend.
The first flower that is evident everywhere in the park, if you are looking closely, is the small, but lovely, spring-beauty (Claytonia virginica). I've previously photographed a tundra relative Scamman's spring beauty (Claytonia scammaniana) in Denali.
One particularly warm microclime on a ravine slope in the park had young flowering Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), as well as Virginia bluebells and red trillium that were almost open. The Dutchman's breeches are another example of myrmecochory, or seed dispersal by ants. The seeds of this flower have elaisomes (fleshy, oily appendages) that cause ants to bring the seed back to their nests. The ants eat the elaisome, then dispose of the seed in the nest's trash pile where it can germinate far from the parent plant.
As I made my way back in the evening, I came upon a patch of emerging skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) leaves that were back-lit by the setting sun reflecting off of a nearby stream. This is one instance where a still picture just doesn't do the moment justice. The sun was reflecting off the ever changing ripples in the stream so a constant dance of light and shadow played across the back-lit leaves. The beauty of the moment would have been better captured with video. Skunk cabbage is a fascinating plant. In addition to the foul smell of the flower and bruised leaves that gives the plant its name, it is also known for exhibiting thermogenesis. The skunk cabbage flower is one of the first to emerge in early spring. In fact it often pushes up through still partially frozen ground or even a light coating of snow. The way it achieves this feat is through thermogenesis. It uncouples the process of ATP production during cellular respiration (i.e. mitochondria in the cells breaking down glucose into chemical energy the cell can use) and instead generates heat. This allows the spathe-covered flower to generate temperatures 15-35 degrees Celsius above the ambient air temperature and melt its way through the frozen ground. In addition the heating helps to attract pollinators, both by helping to spread the odor of the flower, and thereby attracting early spring carrion-eating flies, but also by attracting early spring insects directly to the warmth, giving them a chance to escape from the ambient temperatures.
Hope you enjoyed the post. I'll be heading out to photograph some more spring wildflowers as soon as I get another chance.