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Walk in the Woods

Jones Gap State Park

with Livability Educator Jaclin DuRant

This spring has been unseasonably cool, but I didn’t let the chill or the rain keep me from taking a walk in the woods at Jones Gap State Park to enjoy the spring wildflowers. Many of the herbaceous plants that bloom this time of year are known as spring ephemerals, since they blossom, are pollinated, create fruit, and disappear all in the space of a few weeks before the tree canopy has completely leafed out and shaded the forest floor.

photo of The Middle Saluda River near the Jones Gap Trail head

The Middle Saluda River near the Jones Gap Trail head

Jones Gap is a great place for contemplating the history of the upstate and the many connections between humans and nature. The Jones Gap Trail was once a road, built by Solomon Jones in the 1840’s. Legend has it that he blazed the road by following his sow that he had brought down the mountain and then turned loose, knowing that she would take the shortest route home.

photo of Long Spurred Violet (Viola rostrata)

Long Spurred Violet (Viola rostrata)

Whether or not the story of Jones’ pig is true, his toll road was used until 1910, and today it serves as a lovely hike alongside the Middle Saluda River, the first river in South Carolina to be named an official scenic river. Spring ephemerals are everywhere that you look in Jones Gap, and each plant has a unique story associated with it.

photo of pairs of flowers dangle beneath the leaves of Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum)

Pairs of flowers dangle beneath the leaves of Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum)

Flowers exist for a single purpose; to help the plant reproduce. Once we know that, the varying shapes, sizes, colors, and scents of flowers take on new meaning. The darkened blue lines leading into the center of the Long-Spurred Violet are nectar (or pollen) guides, and act like lights on an airport landing strip, guiding insects into the center of the flower.

Photo of a lovely Trillium, fading to pink

A lovely Trillium, fading to pink

The few pink Trillium blossoms in a sea of white flowers may seem out of place, but there is a story behind their appearance as well. In some species of plants, after the flower has been visited by a pollinator or fertilized, the petals will change color. There is no longer any reason for the plant to invest energy in keeping the petals white or producing pollen, so they fade to pink. This may also serve as a clue to pollinators to not waste their time visiting these flowers.

Photo of Maroon blossoms adorn Sweet Shrub (Calycanthus floridus)

Maroon blossoms adorn Sweet Shrub (Calycanthus floridus)

The stories that flowers can tell aren’t just related to insects and reproduction. The beautiful maroon blossoms on Sweet Shrub are what give this plant a myriad of nicknames. The flowers have been used in potpourris and placed in dresser drawers to sweeten the smell of blankets and sweaters. Before indoor plumbing and regular baths, women would place sachets of the blossoms in the bodices of their dresses, earning the plant the nickname "Bubby Bush."

Photo of Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia)

Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia)

The common names of flowering plants often hint at the uses that people have found for those plants or the appearance of the plant. Bear Corn, for instance, is a parasitic plant that looks a lot like chewed corn cobs while the blossoms of Foamflower appear from a distance as if a splash of foam from the river has been tossed onto the land. Common names aren’t the only ones that tell stories either. The scientific name Conopholis comes from the Latin for “cone” and “scale,” both of which refer to the appearance of the plant.

Bear Corn (Conopholis americana) a parasite of oak tree roots

Bear Corn (Conopholis americana) a parasite of oak tree roots

Some plants have more than one story. Jack-in-the-pulpit plants hide their flowers deep in the base of a leafy green tube. Each plant produces either male or female flowers, but not both. The interesting thing is that each plant can be a male one year, and a female the next, or completely skip flowering depending on how much energy it has available from the year before. One way to determine whether the plant is female or male is to check how many leaves it has produced. Female plants generally have 2 leaves while male plants have only 1.

Plants are a constant presence in our lives. We get medicine, food, building materials, clothing, and so much more from them, and the enjoyment that discovering a beautiful or unique blossom can bring is undeniable.

Photo of Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum)

Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum)

Jones Gap State Park is part of the Mountain Bridge Wilderness area, which includes 11,000 acres of parks and natural areas. There is no shortage of stories to discover in Jones Gap. Rich in biodiversity and offering more than 30 miles of hiking trails, it is a perfect place to take a walk in the woods.

Photo of An Eastern Red-spotted Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens)

An Eastern Red-spotted Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens) also going for a hike.