The snow is gone, the birds are back and things are starting to green up. Spring is a wonderful time of year in Northeast Iowa and there is no better place to celebrate it than in the woods looking for tiny wildflowers called spring ephemerals. Spring ephemerals are short-lived plants that are in a photosynthetic race against all other forest vegetation including the trees themselves. Starting in March the plants open up, hoping to capture as much sunlight and pollinators as possible.
Every April, the allure of seeing a Pasque flower in bloom forces me to put all tasks aside. This flower blooms around Easter time hence the name "Pasque" (meaning "like Paschal," relating to Passover/Easter time). Typically found in Iowa’s Tallgrass Prairies, Pasque flowers will also grow on high bluff top openings called “goat prairies” (this term refers to a hill so steep that it was thought only goats could graze on it). On these goat prairies, dozens of plant, animal, and insect species interact with each other to make up a truly unique habitat. Luckily, one of my close friends has the agility of a goat and after scaling a limestone ridge along the Turkey River he clued me in to a patch of “tiny, amazing wildflowers” he had never seen before. The following lines are an account of my first time looking for Pasque flowers.
Having no map and only my friend’s descriptive words, I deliberate how to find a flower I’ve never seen. The climb up the bluff is steep and forces me to stop to catch my breath several times. Resting, I hear the “True, Truly” call of an Eastern Bluebird coming from the forest edge below. Insects crawl on the moss-covered rocks, robins are flitting about in oak leaves; the earth is waking up under my feet.
On top of the bluff, under a big blue sky, thick mats of sedges make the ground feel like shag carpet. Chorus frogs are calling in the distance. Turkey vultures soar above me. Twisting branches of Eastern Red Cedar trees are teeming with green, blue, and yellow lichens. Though they are a combination of fungus and algae, lichens live as one plant and are simply using the Cedar trees to connect themselves. Without knowing their names, I admire the lichens until a tiny, fuzzy flower catches my attention.
Like an ear that was just whispered a secret, my eyes and jaw drop to the ground. On my hands and knees, I measure the plant to be no more than two inches tall and notice the flower’s stalk is full of tiny silky threads. The combination of growing low to the ground and the smooth “hairs” are the plant’s adaptations to keep it warm during the cold days of spring. The flower has six beautiful white to pinkish sepals that contain parallel veins, which lead into its bright yellow stamens. Upon further investigation, I learn this mystery flower is indeed a Pasque flower. I rest next to the flower for several minutes, letting the sunshine warm my winter bones. A smile comes across my face knowing there will be so many more colors of wildflowers to chase.