There is a small hillside in our garden that gets plenty of Spring sunlight and is covered in Trout Lilies, Spring Beauty, Bluebells, Dutchmans Breeches, Mayapples and Trilliums. Bloodroot blooms white and bright in the early Spring. We call this section of the front yard Shenks Ferry.
Our Bluebells are in full bloom, often bluer than the sky, the colors are so rich, especially in the evening. The patch is thick and the luminescent blue is so striking against the white flowers of our Trillium erectum var. Album, which we purchased at our local Native Plant Nursery , Redbud Nursery. Only guessing here, but the seed stock for this particular trillium was most likely collected with permission at or near Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve, being that the white flowered version of this usually red Trillium is found primarily in the vicinity of or at this specific site.
Every year our garden bluebells grow in size and are re-seeding themselves, making our garden look more and more like Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve .
The magnifying glass can create a whole new dimension to exploring the plants in our garden!
Our garden has inviting paths, that we can use without stepping on the plants. Being that native plants are losing so much habitat to development and exotic-plant dominated landscaping, as well as the invasive exotics that are running rampant through what is left of our natural lands and remnants, stepping on a native plant in Shenks Ferry is to be avoided at all costs. So we practice not stepping on native plants in our garden, using our narrow but inviting paths.
Our reward for not stepping off the paths and crushing the plants is we get Trilliums growing right up next to the path that will one day grow to be 18 inches high and almost a foot in diameter!
The Trillium Erectum var Album growing in our garden will one day reach the soaring heights and broad span of this glorious specimen at Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve!
In our Philadelphia rowhouse yard, the Trilliums and Bluebells grow together, just like at Shenks Ferry. In fact, Shenks Ferry has been instructional in our garden construction. We have ground up our leaves in the fall and created a thick layer of leaf compost in our garden to match the soil conditions of Shenks Ferry as best as possible. We pay close attention to plant associations so we may plant our Trilliums, Bluebells, Mayapples, Dutchman’s Breeches, Maidenhair Ferns and Christmas Ferns in a naturalistic way.
Even more inspiring for us was the one sunny Spring morning last year when our garden looked like a miniature Shenks Ferry Wildflower preserve! Thats when we named the little hillside alongside the front patio “Shenks Ferry”. Even the Spring sky had that bright clear blue color and the ground with that fresh bright green of Spring Ephemeral wildflowers! We had achieved the goal of creating in miniature what we find the most beautiful in our regional natural environment in just a few years.
When we started the native plant woodland garden, it was a monoculture of the invasives Japanese Pachysandra, English Ivy, Vinca vine and a few daffodils, all of this in the shade of a mature Pin Oak and Sugar Maple, both native forest trees.
There was a Japanese Maple in the middle of the yard, which we gave away after we ripped out, bagged up and trashed all of the invasives and brought in a few truckloads of leaf compost from The City Of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park Recycling center. The yard was a ‘pass’ and respectable from the standards of a city yard before hand, but to us it was completely unacceptable, uninspiring, boring, and useless to the local ecology. Robins would hop up and down in the adjacent Morris Park, but not in the yard.
Now we have many Trilliums growing in the our yard, and many of them flower every year.
We also have a growing Trout Lily patch, but no flowering ones yet, its only been three years. To get a flowering Trout Lily takes years and years of growing.
The Bluebells are fast growers and generous bloomers and make a great garden patch!
Above, the Spring Beauty blooms all Spring in our yard and creates a great border close to the paths.
While our yard will never come close to the natural beauty of Shenks Ferry, we have managed to recreate a satisfying miniature replica of it in our inspired efforts of cultivation. The replica has some of the same plants, facing the sun in the same directions, protected, not from cliffs or steep hillsides, but from stone rowhouses, but protected nonetheless.
When we drive the 78 miles from Philadelphia to Shenks Ferry, we see the landscapes that lack what it is we are searching for and trying to create: highways and developments lacking mature trees; invasive vegetation entangling our views for miles, the outright mis-management of land in general, from broad lawns to vast expanses of pavements to invasive weeds, the trip is exhausting to witness from our perspective.
Now, people are visiting Shenks Ferry in crowds, seeking the beauty of a place left alone for the most part since 1906, when there was a dynamite factory on the site that exploded, killing 11 people.
Shenks Ferry is an inspiration for us, as a place of beauty and a glimpse of the natural world of our region, just to appreciate as it is and to aspire to in our own habitats. When we garden ornamentally, this regional habitat, ecosystem, forest, woodland wildflower forest-scape and natural ravine is the essence of what we aspire to.
Shenks Ferry gives us that Sense-of -Place.
Every morning, in the Springtime, Robins now hop up and down in our yard.
In the springtime, down by the Susquehanna River, there is a place we like to go called Shenks Ferry. This is a protected ravine where Grubb run cuts deep into the piedmont and spills into the wide and blue river. This is a place where the flowers bloom, covering the hillsides with color.
We have become enchanted.
It is in a remote area, full of charming farms and vistas containing dramatic river views. On April 8, 2012, we descended the piedmont towards Shenks Ferry and caught a view of the whole place. In just minutes we would descend further into the ravine itself.
Shenks Ferry has captured our imaginations of Spring and has helped us cultivate our sense of place here in the piedmont of Southeastern Pennsylvania. We wonder at the amazing diversity of plant species. It is astonishing.
The beauty of this ravine in the Spring is brought forth by the carpet of green with the multitude of colorful inflorescence. The trees are magnificent; they still have their grand superstructures so apparent in the winter, but with a haze of green buds and flowers. The sun still reaches the flowers of the forest floor, providing them with the energy of a vibrant and fantastic Springtime life.
The leaves of these flowers are so elegant yet delicate. Each leaf is a map of the inner world of the plant. We can clearly see how much the herbaceous plants of the forest floor depend on the trees for their habitat, because when the trees leaf out, they will protect them from the harsh sun of late Spring.
The light of early Spring is distinctive. Once past the equinox, there is a true change in the quality of days, the mood of a morning and the height of an afternoon. Our sense of place is once again made ever apparent celestially- our planet has moved around the sun at its usual tilt, but at this point in its orbiting travel, our section of the earth, the Northern hemisphere is more directly in the path of its light.
We are constantly moving, and there is change and revolution in Shenks Ferry.
The flowering herbaceous plants, the shrubs and the trees are rooted and beyond what we perceive as ancient. Their genetic provenance in this ravine is beyond our comprehension of time, like the rocks they grow out of are geological, these plants are botanical. In the sciences, time is measured and quantified with the greatest degree of accuracy possible. Everything is evidence based, and botany and geology are fused in time, like the fossil of a fern found in the layers of a sedimentary rock. Time has a physical manifestation we can understand and touch.
Looking at these plants and rocks in Shenks Ferry on a balmy April afternoon, we see a world that embodies time itself as our world has recorded it. It is a time-sense that is very difficult to comprehend, especially with the rocks. The beauty of these flowers and the whole place is in lock step with time itself. The blooming flowers reflect the past to us, many years beyond our sense of the ancient and prehistoric. Like the night sky, the light of the stars has finally reached us from a long ago past, the spring flowers before our eyes are also images from the distant past.
We stopped for lunch on a log, and wondered at the floral hillside beyond, reaching up to that blue spring sky, a hillside covered with blooming bluebells and trilliums, a hillside of Oaks, Maples and Beeches, with an understory of Sassafrass, Dogwoods and Redbuds, we wondered about what beauty really is and where it is, and if it is measurable, like in Botany or Geology, or in contrast to the horrors of the world, that of war and environmental degradation, that beauty has been worn down to something as rudimentary as an aesthetic sensibility subject to the whims of the creative observer, or is it something less complicated, like the passage of time itself, the rotation of the planets around the sun, the flowering of the ages, a Bluebell, what we call the Mertensia virginica, a flower bluer than the sky, a blue that we can hold in our hands, a beyond ancient blue, a seemingly timeless blue that we can plant, cultivate and regenerate in our own gardens, a blue that we can appreciate, photograph and a converse about in our time, this is the blue of a Spring sky, the blue of time, this is the blue that is beyond our comprehension, yet it is the color of blue that inspires our imaginations.
While there may be aspects of the flower that are genetically complicated and worthy of study and research that will further our understanding and appreciation of the world, the simple beauty of the flower is the blue color. The sky is growing out of the ground! What is Spring without the plants mirroring the sky?
THE SANGUINE ROOT VISITS A SITE OF PROFOUND BEAUTY IN PENNSYLVANIA. THE MIDDLE OF THE MONTH OF APRIL IS THE TIME TO SEE A HILLSIDE OF VIRGINIA BLUEBELLS AND TRILLIUM ERECTUM VARIATION ALBUM AND TRILLIUM FLEXIPES ALL BLOOMING AT THE SAME TIME.
We had heard about this place where Bluebells and Dutchman’s breeches cover hillsides. Trilliums abound in the millions. The ‘Rich ravines of the lower Susquehanna River’. We heard how it is hard to find and off the beaten path, with bumpy dirt roads and an ancient stone tunnel that you must pass through to reach the other side. Once you make it through this tunnel, the landscape is transformed, and you are in a primordial world, with ancient trees and wildflowers abundantly growing.
This is the stuff of myths. How can it be possible that a native wildflower wonderland can appear by passing through an an old stone tunnel on a dirt road? We decided to make a go of it last year, in the spring of 2010, and after a long morning of directions, turns, and crinkled maps, somehow we found a sign along the River Road in some place very remote but only about 2 1/2 hours from Philadelphia, that pointed to Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve. We bumped along, following the well-marked signs, and our 1999 Suburu Legacy outback stationwagon had no problem with the dirt road. We kept going along and bumping up and down and there was the mythological stone tunnel before us. We crept through the dark tunnel on the dirt road and finally reached the other side.
It was just what the hype had described. On the incoming side of the tunnel was a rural and bucolic landscape of well- manicured homes with non-native trees, grasses and flowers and large expanses of mowed lawns.
On the other side was the mythological rich ravines of the Lower Susquehanna River. We could hardly drive to the trailhead without being distracted by the large swaths of blue and white covering the rich hillside. The blue, being Bluebells, (Mertensia Virgininica) and white, being Trillium Erectum v. album, Trillium flexipes or most likely a hybrid of both, most specimens indistinguishable in this interbreeded population.
We had reached a place where our piedmont landscape was deeply dissected with a magnificent river, the Susquehanna, and there were small creeks that also deeply dissected the landscape as they made their way to the wide and low Susquehanna. These ravines are cut so deep into the piedmont that they have steep slopes that provide a protected micro-climate, allowing a huge diversity of plants to grow, especially spring ephemeral wildflowers. This is Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve. Owned By Pennsylvania Power and Light Company, whose electric lines cross through the area, it is open to the public and has a trailhead with brochures, and a bulletin board. Park on the side of the road, and when you get out of the car, take care to not step on the wildflowers abundantly growing in the parking area.
Last week, we selected Thursday April 14, 2011 for our trip to Shenks Ferry, and it was a success. The Trilliums were in bloom and so were the Bluebells. It was not peak bloom, but close enough, especially with the amazing weather we had. The weekday arrival time allowed us to have the 50 acre preserve to ourselves for the first half hour we were there. There are benches along the path which we took advantage of for lunch and even a porta-potty is available. The green hillsides are covered in bluebells and Trilliums. Many other species as well ranging from the round-lobed Hepatica pictured above (Hepatica americana) to Dutchmans breeches, Mayapple, Trout lily, and Claytonia virginica, the Spring beauty. This is the place to come if you want to get design ideas for a woodland garden, as well as get a feel for the optimal environmental conditions of these plants, as well as what will grow next to each other, and how these combinations can look and behave.
We had come to Shenks Ferry Wildflower preserve last September just to see what it looked like without all the spring ephemerals, and we were greeted with an array of asters and goldenrod. We closely examined the soil and the leaf litter in the trillium -rich areas to see what they like. We found that the leaf litter was not a heavy matte, rather a broken up and fluffy stratification, over a soil that was just more decomposed leaf litter, and layered upon a light, organic matter of composted leaves. The trilliums were growing out of this humusy, loose, and well-drained accumulation of many years of decayed leaves, in a protected valley.
It is fun to try to tell the two different Trilliums apart, when they have so many similar qualities. The Trillium erectum has a noticeably dark maroon ovary. The Flexipes has petals a bit more robust and cream-colored stamens. That blue flower behind the Trillium is an easy one, Mertensia virginica, Virginia bluebells.
This is the quintessential Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve scene in the springtime. A steep hillside covered with Bluebells, Trillium, and Claytonia virginica, spring beauty. This is what we came here to see.
The Dutchmans breeches is a flower we have been trying to grow in the front yard, and have not yet had a flower. Every year they grow little green branches about 4 inches high with heavily dissected leaves and seem happy enough, only to eventually go dormant. No flower though. In Shenks Ferry, flowering Dutchmans breeches are covering the hillsides. They grow out of a corm, similar to that of Trout lily , and the invasive exotic, Ranunculus ficaria, the Lesser celandine. The corms of Dutchmans breeches form dense networks, and likely play a part in the soil retention of the steep slopes of the ravine habitat.
This is the woodland foot-path of Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve. It is situated about 25 feet above Grubb Run, the creek that runs into the Susquehanna. At this elevation, We were afforded a great view of the creek and we were well-placed to see the wildflowers on the hillside. This is what one of the rich ravines of the lower Susquehanna River looks like.
Isabelle basks in the sun alongside the Bluebells and Trilliums.
Looking up the slope of the ravine to the bluebells above.
Trilliums and Mayapples
Isabelle photographing a Trout lily along the banks of Grubb Run.
Mayapple, (Podophyllum peltatum)
A giant Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) grows right on the creek bank.
Erythronium americanum, the Trout lily, growing alongside the creek.
This is what it takes to get that picture. Great measures are taken to not step on any plants or disturb any ecosystems. We stay on paths. This one path led down to the creek so we went for it. There were plenty of rocks to step on.
The new format of digital photography allows for many pictures to be taken at different angles, to get that shot. If the picture is blurry or at the wrong angle, a simple delete click will eliminate it.
It was so exciting for us to see so many flowers at once in such a short time. After a few hours, we stopped snapping pictures and just looked at the flowers, and settled in.
However, that did not last long, as we came across this patch of Trillium flexipes, and Dicentra cucullaria, there was no way we could not take some shots and bring the image home.
We found a path that led us up a steep hill into a more upland environment. Here we found Bloodroot blooming next to Early saxifrage (Saxifraga virginiensis). It is interesting how just a few feet in elevation completely changes the environment. We had not been acquainted with Saxifraga virginiensis before, but we are charmed by its elegant white flowers and modest 4 inch stem, and especially the small rosette at the ground level. It is such a natural neighbor to the Bloodroot in this ravine.
We made our way back down to the creek to find this snake also completely enjoying this mid -April Thursday afternoon in Shenks Ferry.
A hillside of Trilliums and Bluebells in the springtime. The Happy Place: Shenks ferry Wildflower Preserve.
Bluebells as far as the eye can see.
This is the view just a 5 minute walk up a steep path next to the trail head.
On this small path we encountered a disturbing scene. An infestation of Euonymous alatus, the exotic invasive burning bush, overtaking the Trilliums along the path.
The Trilliums can barely flower amidst this infestation. The invasive seedlings of Burning bush were crowding out the native wildflowers. The close proximity of this dangerous invasive to the all of the habitat we documented in this entire post was a sobering scene. This infestation reminded us that we cannot escape the invasives, and that the problems we face in Morris Park are everywhere. In a way, we can clearly see that Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve is not a fantasy escape of happy wildflowers growing in a rich ravine, but a place just like many others: A happy place of diverse species and some invasives, at risk of becoming degraded.
Even the ride out of Philadelphia was a constant reminder of the increased development and urbanization that is creating habitat loss and depletion of natural areas.
Hopefully we as a species will learn to appreciate and protect the natural habitats that are responsible for our own survival. The big box store, the housing development and the landscaping, as well as the introduced landscape plants that become invasives destroying the forest remnant behind this creation, will not sustain us in the long term.
The Forest remnants that are still intact can provide us with some glimpse of how we may want to arrange our own built ecosytems, just as they may provide a hint to how we may want to arrange our native plant gardens. The forest remnants and the remaining plants most likely will have the most to teach us about what it takes to have a sustainable ecosystem. Just to note, these ecosystems have been around for thousands of years. We did see lots of mini-malls and parking lots and invasives, but we also made it out to Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve, and we saw the beauty of our area of Pennsylvania. It was a great joy to see the plants and the environment of this rich ravine.