It was the spring ephemeral flowers that we had seen the previous weekend that coaxed us into the woods on a somewhat brisk late winter day. The floral display was ahead of schedule and we did not want to miss any of the performers.
Middle Creek Park in Boone County, Kentucky is known for its wildflowers, and spring ephemerals in particular. It is always front of mind as it seems that we are not infrequently in its neighborhood when we visit other good venues like Boone Cliffs, Dinsmore Woods, and Conserancy Park.
It has 8.5 miles of trails, ranging from moderate to very difficult, and targeted to the hiker and the equestrian. Today we were to hike the western portion of Trail 1, up to the top of the ridge, and return by Trail 6.
From the parking area we entered a mid-aged wood, where shortly the trail dropped down into the Middle Creek floodplain.
The trail wound through the Sycamore and Silver Maple wood and ended up on the bank of Middle Creek.
In this moist environment we noted some unusual rust coloration to some of the Sycamore trees.
This was something that was mentioned at a recent tree conference that I attended – “Red Bark Phenomenon”. It was first noted 10 years ago in New England and occurs in many species of trees, but is perhaps more noticeable in Sycamores due to the contrasting white bark. It is caused by a green algae that has a large amount of carotenoids (think orange like carrots) in its cells, which mask the usual green of the algal chlorophyll. It is a benign condition, only involving the surface of the tree, and generally occurs in moist environments like we were in. Exciting to see it in the field so shortly after first hearing about it.
The forest floor showed evidence of recent flooding but still hosted some colorful wildflowers:
Blue-eyed Mary – an annual that is somewhat uncommon, but Sarah Grote, Natural Areas Technician for Boone County Parks, messaged me that the Middle Creek Floodplain has the most abundant population of Blue-eyed Mary that she has ever seen.
While we saw only a few isolated Blue-eyed Marys, Sarah sent me this photo that was taken by staff of the Boone County Parks department last year during peak bloom. Interspersed with the Blue-eyed Marys is some Woodland Phlox. I suspect that we could see that level of blooming during the second and third weeks of April.
Spring Beauty – pictured in the title photo and below. Its petals can range from solid white, to peppermint striped, to pastel purple in color. In addition, the flower petals may be round to somewhat pointed.
Purple Dead-nettle – is a non-native plant but an important source of pollen for bees in the spring. The top leaves are used by foragers for salad greens. While this plant resembles the nettle genus, they do not sting like nettles do. Hence the name “dead-nettle”.
Harbinger of Spring – these photos demonstrate where it gets its other name, Pepper and Salt, with the white of the petals and reddish-black of the anthers.
Purple Cress – its flowers were not fully open due the cold on this date. Like Spring Beauty, the flowers can vary from white to pastel purple. The coarse teeth on the leaves are an identifying feature.
Along the route we came across what appeared to be tandem vernal ponds – a depression in the earth that holds water during our moist late winters and early springs and provides a habitat for reproduction of numerous amphibian and invertebrate species. Free of fish, there is no predation on the developing organisms. These wetlands will disappear in the drier months.
Nearby was this massive Sycamore with a very stout, knobbly base.
A bench in the shade of the Sycamore is a memorial to Northern Kentucky birdwatcher Lee Kirtley McNeely. It mentions “The Peace of Wild Things”, a poem by the famed Kentucky author and poet laureate, Wendell Berry, a man whose work has indeed brought me much reflective peace.
From here we mounted the bridge and crossed Middle Creek.
It was a very peaceful setting, only filled with the sounds of nature.
Once across the creek, Trail 1 headed west toward the Ohio River, running parallel to our previous route, but on the opposing bank and in the opposite direction.
Shortly we came upon this relic American Elm, with a network of exposed roots. How many storms and creek torrents has she survived?
And then the easy part of the trail ended. We headed south, up a steep grade. We questioned each other, a 25 or 30% grade? It is easier to appreciate the incline in the distance on this photo.
The actual climb was about 200 feet change in elevation, but it was relatively straight up – not a switchback to be seen.
At the crest, Trail 1 went somewhat to our left but to our right we could see an antique chimney perched on the point of the ridge.
Findings such as this leads us to reflect on the lives of those that lived here. Did they climb the hill that we just did? What was their access point? Where did they get water? But it did become obvious why they built here. Can you imagine this view of the Ohio River and Indiana if these trees were not here? And they probably were not when this was a homestead.
The craftsmanship of the stone work can be appreciated on this close up photo. The mortar is largely gone but the stones are nestled in just fine.
More evidence of the farming homestead is noted in study of the trees. Just east of the chimney was this cluster of Osage Orange trees. Osage Oranges were native to a small region of North Texas and Southern Arkansas, but later planted widely due to their usefulness on farms. Young trees acted as natural hedges and were used as paddock and pasture fences. As they aged the trees provided an extremely durable wood that was used for fencing, tool handles, and as wooden pegs for construction. The wood was largely rot resistant. Despite there modest size, these trees are quite old.
Exiting the homestead we found ourselves traveling south along a ridge, back on Trail 1. What was noticeable were the number of mature trees snapped off mid trunk, with the crown falling to the east. That is the risk to large trees on the highest peak in the region when a wind sheer presents itself.
Along this ridge we saw groupings of what appeared to be Southern Fragile Fern. This species is small, and one of the first deciduous ferns to make a reappearance after the winter, about the same time as the early woodland wildflowers
Here you can see the unfurling of new growth characteristic of ferns. It will go dormant quite early and loose this seasons leaves before late summer.
Eventually we get to the crossroads where Trail 6 heads back down slope toward the creek and our van. What strikes you here is the devastation of Emerald Ash Borer. Carcasses are everywhere and dead snags are still standing sentry. Luckily it was a near windless day.
In this area we saw three classic spring wildflowers:
Blood Root – this was flowering earlier than I have seen it before. It gets its name from the red juice that oozes from traumatized roots. Native Americans used this liquid to dye baskets and clothing, and for facial paint. In addition it was used as an insect repellent. The flowers are nearly 1.5 inches in diameter.
Yellow Corydalis – is found statewide in moist woods. It was early in the season and will have a better floral display soon.
Cut-leaved Toothwort – “Tooth” refers to the shape of the projections from its tuber or root, and “wort” is just an old word for plant.
One of the interesting findings of the day presented itself on this part of the trail. Among the decaying ash trunks we saw this lattice of fibers. It was something that I had never seen before despite all my time in the woods. It was clearly integrated with the decaying ash bark. We saw it once on the top of the hill, and again half way down. It was resilient. Was it some kind of connective tissue? Was it related to the damage of Emerald Ash Borer itself? Why have I not seen it before? So many questions.
At the base of the hill, Trail 6 hooked back up to Trail 1, and we retraced our steps toward the parking area. First recrossing the bridge, and enjoying the downstream view west.
And then again walking along the northern bank, into the setting sun.
One last photo to celebrate the arrival of spring – an unidentified pollinator visiting a Spring Beauty blossom.
In summary, it was a great late winter outing that featured many of the Ohio River Valley’s ephemeral wildflowers. Once the season starts I fear every significant drop in the temperature, not fully recognizing that in contrast to my garden plants, these flowers have been evolutionarily selected to survive the temperature variations common this time of year. Still, I am anxious to get back into the spring woodland, afraid that I will miss the relatively fleeting display of the individual performers. We can add Middle Creek Park to our list of good venues to see the spring woodland wildflowers. We will be back.
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Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns.
Special thanks to Sarah Grote with the Boone County Parks for assistance with fern identification, the map, and the photo of flood plain full of Blue-eyed Marys.
Parking – Excellent large gravel lot.
Facilities – Portolet at parking lot.
Trail Conditions – the trail was generally wide. Navigate using the newer markers attached to trees as the older brown wooden signs were not as accurate. Perhaps the trails were moved somewhat. The surface is frequently bare dirt and I suspect the slopes could be a challenge for footing on a wet day.
Benches – at least one noted along the creek.
Picnic Tables – many near the parking area.
Kids – The grade could be a challenge for kids under 7.
Dogs – Welcomed on a leash.
Suggested Paired Hikes – While there are over 8 miles of trails within Middle Creek Park. Dinsmore Woods Nature Preserve utilizes the same parking lot and the trailhead is just across KY 18.