Volume 19 No. 2
A Summer Wildflower Tour in Indiana Woodlands
by Cliff Chapman
Hoosiers need to break a bad habit: only visiting our beautiful and rich woodlands in the spring and fall, looking for ephemeral wildflowers and panoramic views of changing leaf colors. Summer brings long days, allowing more time to stroll through a forest after work or other obligations.
This time of year also showcases dozens of species of butterflies and nesting birds along with an impressive array of woodland wildflowers. The Central Indiana Land Trust owns sixteen nature preserves that cover a geographic area large enough to represent much of the state. Burnett Woods in Avon is typical of a flat woods community. In summer, the dominant forest herb is stinging nettle. Yes, its prickly hairs do sting, but it boasts beautiful ivory flowers and is host to an impressive number of moths, skippers and butterflies who in their larval stage are very important to sustaining birds after they arrive from their wintering grounds. A less common but perhaps more interesting summer flower at Burnett Woods is puttyroot orchid. Puttyroot has an attractive single striped leaf that comes up in the fall, stays green all winter and then fades in the spring taking advantage of no light competition. In summer, it sends up a leafless flower stalk of delicate, green flowers often tinged with purple. Another orchid that has the same life cycle in southern Indiana is crane-fly orchid which has purple flowering stalks in summer.
Hemlock Ridge Nature Preserve located in Putnam County contains steep slopes and a relict stand of Eastern hemlocks. Areas of the preserve with acidic soils support plants like the ground hugging evergreen partridge berry that is interesting in that its white flowers are in pairs that produce a single bright red berry. These berries may persist on the plant for many months, even in winter. Another summer flower that exists here is goat’s beard, named after its thick white plume of flowers. The rich slopes of glacial origin also harbor false hellebore, a plant whose foliage is as beautiful as its flowers. A member of lily family, false hellebore has very large striped leafs below tall purple flowering spikes.
Wapihani Nature Preserve sits along the White River in Fishers and is indicative of many floodplain forests across the state. Summer brings American bellflower with its sky blue flowers with elephant trunk-like curved pistols, and big showy cut leaved coneflower and wingstem, both boasting large yellow sunflowers growing right next to the river. Jewelweed is found in low areas and dangles orange trumpet-like flowers that when in fruit propel their seeds up to eight feet, lending to its other common name, touch-me-not.
Shalom Woods, located in Morgan County, shares the characteristics of hilly woodlands across the southern half of the state. With bone-dry ridge tops, steep slopes and rich stream valleys, it supports a wide variety of plants and animals. Much smaller and more delicate than its cousin growing along roadsides, blue-stemmed goldenrod flowers only where leaves meet its glossy stem giving it a wand like appearance in the forest. White bergamot is one of our showiest mints and is commonly found along ridges in summer. Not to be outdone, another mint, dittany with its rosepurple flowers is very common on dry oak slopes. There are several different species of blue asters that add color late in the growing season.
The summertime mix of yellow from woodland goldenrods and blue asters is truly beautiful! An often overlooked plant that loves to grow along trails or logging roads is Indian tobacco. A lobelia-like cardinal flower, it exudes a milky substance if a leaf is pulled from the stem. It has small white flowers but more interesting is that its seed pods inflate. These bladder-like structures catch the wind and teeter about releasing tiny seeds in the fall. Although later found to be poisonous, it gets its common name from Native Americans smoking its dried leaves.
Oliver’s Woods has a mix of oak, walnut and maple right in Indianapolis and is our newest nature preserve. Summer brings acres of spiderwort with its purple-petaled flowers with bright yellow stamens. Virginia knotweed is very common here with its curved spike of white flowers and is a member of the smartweed family, known more from wetlands. It is also called jumpseed as it propels its seeds like touch-me-nots. One of Indiana’s most common woodland flowers is here too, white snakeroot. This showy white flowered plant with large heart shaped leaves is notorious in American history as it is toxic and can poison livestock. Often, however, the poison doesn’t kill the grazing animal but is passed on through its milk, causing fatal milk sickness. Abraham Lincoln’s mother died from milk sickness while the family lived in southern Indiana.
There truly are too many summer woodland flowers to list here. Indiana’s forests are incredibly rich with life and warrant pleasurable hikes in between the flush of color from spring wildflowers and autumn foliage.
Cliff Chapman is the Conservation Director for the Central Indiana Land Trust, www.conservingindiana.org. He has previously worked for the Nature Conservancy in Washington state and as a regional ecologist for the Indiana Division of Nature Preserves.