Early spring wildflowers appear briefly to dazzle
On the morning that the Bedford Audubon group sets forth on its field trip, blustery winds and cold temperatures are conspiring. Ephemerals in bloom the day before appear to have shut up, tight as drums. Then the sun comes out and so do the flowers.
The group, outfitted in parkas, mittens and hats as they scale the hillsides, are treated to meadows of trillium and foamflower, wild ginger, ginseng, and Solomon’s seal. There are Jack-in-the-pulpits, May apple, blue cohosh, and five varieties of violets—in all, some 55 natives of early-spring flowers.
Naturalist Carol Gracie leads the group, urging everyone to slow down and look closely at the feast spread out like a picnic before them. Ephemerals—those early-spring wildflowers—have evolved to take advantage of the sunlight that reaches the forest floor before the tree canopy has leafed out. In general, people must take to the woods to find them.
Gracie’s passion for wildflowers was kindled on childhood hikes with her father. As time went by, learning the names of native flowers was not enough. “I wanted to know more about them, why they lived where they did, what insects visited them, how they got their names,” she writes in Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast. “As with people, plants become both more interesting and more memorable once you get to know them.”
Temperament, interest, and natural ability would lead to a career at The N.Y. Botanical Garden and, later, to a burgeoning career as a writer and photographer. Gracie ran NYBG’s children’s-education and adult-travel programs for many years and still exudes the patience and enthusiasm of any good teacher. Along the way, she obtained her degree in botany and spent 25 years traveling and working in remote places with her husband, Scott Mori, a tropical botanist at NYBG.
In Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast, hot off the press in March, Gracie takes us on an armchair excursion as unique as actual excursions she’s led to exotic places. Her new book follows on the heels of a field guide she coauthored with Steven Clemants and focuses on some of the Northeast’s most iconic species.
Gracie’s book is a blend of natural and social history as well as an overview of how wildflowers figure in folklore, literature, and art. She reports on pests and pathogens, explores medicinal applications, and distills current findings from scientific journals into nuggets accessible to laymen. Because Gracie herself is a visual learner, she feels it is crucial to use photographs to tell the story. For many of the more than 500 color photographs, she employs a special macro lens to capture a natural world not visible to the naked eye.
As Gracie leads the Audubon group through the woods, she points out the serendipity that might otherwise be missed—fallen, moss-covered logs supporting exquisite random wildflower arrangements and microclimates where specific ephemerals flourish. Very soon these wildflowers will disappear for another year and Gracie will be moving on as well, this time to a book for the summer season.
“I’ll get a call telling me such and such is going to be in bloom for two or three days. Come on up,” she says of spotters in disparate parts of the Northeast who scout the woods for her. And she’ll grab her camera and notebook and be off on her next adventure.