On an April day, I head to Echo Valley State Park to explore the beauty of spring. I am anxious to discover which of the state park’s hundreds of plant species could be in bloom. Though the park is merely 100 acres it feels much larger due to its location on what geologists term the Silurian Escarpment. Not only does this prominent feature mark the boundary of two Iowa landforms in Fayette county, but its durable bedrock called dolomite (magnesium-rich limestone) was also formed in a shallow sea nearly 430 million years ago and creates a scenic backdrop to walk upon.
Walking through Echo Valley’s rocky landform, I observe several large rock outcrops and hear the sound of rushing water below me. I venture further along the ridge above where Otter Creek and Glovers Creek flow. The melody of clear water gliding over rocks composes an enjoyable symphony. Robins are singing in the forest and a bald eagle soars overhead. A pileated woodpecker is chipping away at an old dead elm.
Under the forest floor, a remarkable grove of wildflowers is in bloom: spring beauties, hepatica, dutchman’s breeches, mitterwort, and trout lilies are all showing pretty colors of pink, purple, lavender, and white. These spring wildflowers are tiny magicians of fleeting joy.
Several of these plants contain parts that are edible including the bulbs of spring beauties and the leaves of trout lilies. After photographing the blooms, I start the climb down over dozens of van-sized boulders. The dolomite rocks here are generally resistant to erosion, but the incessant movement of ground and rainwater has dissolved small pits into the rocks called “vugs.” Growing on many of these damp, porous rocks are countless species of ferns and mosses.
One of my favorite ferns, the walking fern, forms dense colonies on the rocks. Walking ferns are unusual in that they can reproduce vegetatively with the tips of their leaf blades. Looking closely, I can see where the “younger” ferns are surrounded and connected by a larger more mature mother plant. All the mosses and ferns love the shade of the north-facing hillslope. An uncommon plant called Canada Yew is growing directly from the rock. Canada Yew is an evergreen shrub that is more commonly found in, you guessed it, Canada than Iowa.
In Northeast Iowa, the shrub prefers cool, moist-north facing forests where it often grows in thick carpets. Not only is this shrub attractive but its foliage and green stems are used to extract a white crystalline powder called paclitaxel, which is used as an anti-cancer drug.
Once I reach the valley floor, I take a few moments to soak up the bubbling sounds of Glovers Creek. This cold-water stream is stocked with rainbow trout by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Resting my winter bones, I can see several of the bright colored trout darting out from the emerald stream waters. For a moment, the combination of rocky bluffs and a clearwater trout stream, makes me feel like I’m in a western mountain scene. Every walk in Iowa doesn’t always feel like this sweet, but I’m sure thankful for places like Echo Valley that inspire a feeling of wildness.