Spring Awakening in the Mississippi River Gorge: Spotting Native and Invasive Plants

It’s that time of year when you cautiously place your warm winter sweaters in storage and head outside to soak up the sun. It’s never clear how long the sunshine will last; next week could include freezing rain. You ask yourself, “How long do I need to wait to put out the lawn furniture?” Plants, too, must strategize.

Virginia waterleaf.
Virginia waterleaf.

There’s a short period of time in early spring before trees fully leaf out and steal all the light. After snowmelt, the forest may appear brown and devoid of life. Along the bottomlands of the Mississippi River Gorge, the ground is spongy and cool with battered layers of leaves from past years. The last of the ice clings to the steep limestone and sandstone bluffs. It’s been many long months since most trees dropped the last of their leaves. Spring ephemerals are eager to emerge.

Spring ephemerals have short life cycles, quickly blooming and producing seed before dying back and falling into dormancy before the trees obscure the sun. The Mississippi River Gorge is one of the best places to find spring ephemerals within the MWMO’s watershed. In an urban area mostly covered by hard surfaces like buildings and roads, the gorge offers a place to experience the wildness of the Mississippi River corridor.

Siberian squill and garlic mustard.
Invasive species: (from left) Siberian squill, garlic mustard leaf rosettes, and flowering garlic mustard.

Along the Winchell Trail, a five-mile hiking trail along the west side of the river between East Franklin Avenue and East 44th Street, a number of plants are already popping up. Virginia waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum), a native plant with distinctive water stain-shaped spotting, is highly abundant and spreads readily. Later in the season, it will have small showy flowers (appearing in rounded clusters), which are highly attractive to bees in need of pollen and nectar. When available from nurseries, this plant can make a great groundcover for moist areas in your yard.

Unfortunately, you will also find the invasive garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) in the vicinity of the waterleaf. This non-native plant thrives in wooded areas, spreading rapidly and producing allelopathic compounds, which inhibit the growth of other plants. In some areas, you may also find patches of Siberian squill (Scilla siberica), a stunning but invasive blue flower which has escaped residential gardens.

Bloodroot with leaf still unfurling.
Bloodroot with leaf still unfurling.

If you can take a hike in the near future, you may stumble upon a dramatic hillside display of bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), which has white petals that only open in the sun and a cluster of bright yellow, pollen-covered stamens in the center — like eggs, sunny-side up. It may take two to three years for the plant to be ready to bloom. The flowers often emerge while the leaf is still unfurling and may last only a couple of days. However, after pollination, the newly formed seeds will have a fleshy structure called an elaisome, rich in fats and sugars. Ants collect the seeds, eating the elaisome but leaving the seed unharmed, thus aiding in dispersal. The fleetingness of bloodroot parallels the adult lifespan of mayflies (order Ephemeroptera); the nymphs may take up to two years to develop in aquatic habitats but then emerge and live only long enough to mate and reproduce (around a day).

Given the sensitivity and uniqueness of the gorge, many organizations including neighborhood groups, nonprofits, and government entities have been working to help protect habitat for the long-term through invasive species management and habitat restoration efforts. If you’re interested in getting involved, you can learn about how to become a Gorge Steward with Friends of the Mississippi River. You can also help out by picking up garbage and staying on the trail when possible to prevent soil erosion and damage to native plants.

No walk in the gorge will ever be the same as the last. One day you might see bloodroot. The next time, the last of the ice will have disappeared, Jack-in-the-Pulpit will have sent up its leaves and proudly display its spathe and spadix, and the tall deciduous trees by the river’s edge will have swallowed most of the light.

If you’re in a hurry, the well-used asphalt path along West River Parkway is a good starting point for your journey. (Directions to the trailhead) However, the un-paved portion of the trail is accessible from various locations along the parkway. Multiple staircase descents might just pull you closer to the high and clear piping calls of a pileated woodpecker, to a native plant just starting to a bloom, or to the Mississippi River itself.

You can find a map of the trail and some additional details here.

Jack-in-the-pulpit in the Mississippi River Gorge.
Jack-in-the-pulpit in the Mississippi River Gorge.

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