DELMARVA ALMANAC

Summer Wildflowers Along The Choptank River

by Jim Rapp

Naturalist Jim Rapp will tell us about wildflowers and their polinators along The Choptank River.


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Flowers have been connected to human culture for thousands of years. We share and appreciate brightly-colored, sweet-smelling flowers at new births and christenings, as tokens of love, and to let friends and family know we're thinking of them in times of poor health. Some flowers symbolize new beginnings, while others are shared with the grieving as an expression of sympathy. We decorate our homes and yards with flowers to brighten up every-day life.

Biologically speaking, a flower functions as the reproductive structure found in Angiosperms, or flowering plants. Angiosperms are the most diverse group of land plants on the planet. The flower provides a mechanism for the union of sperm with eggs. Male sperm cells are contained in flower pollen, which must be transferred by external forces because plants can't move themselves. Pollen can be transferred by the wind or by insects and other animals that carry the sticky powder between flowers while seeking sweet, energy-rich nectar.

Flowering plants native to the Delmarva Peninsula usually start blooming in early spring, but June and July are peak months to take in the beauty of wildflowers on our landscape. Grey dogwoods produce a creamy-white flower on short stalks that turn red as fruits develop in late summer. Elderberry has 8-inch clusters of small, white flowers that stand out against the shrub's green leaves. Blue-flag iris borders freshwater wetlands, and puts forth a purplish-blue flower with yellow veins. Another wetland plant, Jewelweed, has a small yellow-orange flower with reddish-brown spots. It's ripe seed pods explode when touched, hence the plant's other name, "touch-me-not." Swamp milkweed, a favorite of Monarch butterflies and their caterpillars, produces purplish-pink flowers in mid-summer. Cardinal flower is a favorite of hummingbirds, and produces a bright red blossom. Swamp rose mallow is found along the marsh edge, and its' giant, showy flowers are white or pink with a blood-red center.

Some of the best places to experience this wildflower summer spectacle are around the Choptank River. The Choptank is the longest river on Delmarva, and begins its' 71 mile run in Choptank Mills, Delaware before ending in the Chesapeake Bay between Tilghman Island and Taylors Island. The river is named for the Native people who lived along the river until around 1790.

Many parks and natural areas bursting with blooms border the banks of the river, but Tuckahoe Creek, a Choptank tributary, has some of Delmarva's best wildflower displays. Tuckahoe, another name with Native American origins, is a wetland plant also known as Arrow Arum or duck corn.

Many of our summer wildflowers take root along the rivers or creeks, so kayaking and canoeing can get you close to some our most beautiful wetland blooms. Tuckahoe State Park, just nine miles northwest of historic Denton, Maryland, in Caroline County, features a 60-acre lake and miles of scenic flat-water paddling. The park offers kayak and canoe rentals during the summer.

Adjacent to Tuckahoe State Park is one of Delmarva's true gems, the Adkins Arboretum. This 400-acre native plant preserve promotes the conservation and restoration of the Chesapeake Bay's indigenous landscapes. Adkins Arboretum is the only public garden that focuses on plants native to the Mid-Atlantic coastal plain. The Arboretum supports more than 600 species of native shrubs, trees, grasses, ferns, and wildflowers. Visitors can participate in guided walks, children's programs, plant sales, and art exhibitions.

During the week of June 15th through the 21st, Adkins Arboretum is celebrating Pollinator Week. Participants will learn how to support and celebrate the birds, bees and butterflies that are vital for healthy ecosystems.

Flowers are amazingly diverse in their methods for attracting pollinators. Birds and bees have color vision, and brightly colored flowers attract them to feed on their sugary nectar. Some flowers have patterns that serve as pathways to show pollinators where to find the nectar. These patterns may only be visible to humans under ultra-violet light.

Some flowers use scent to attract pollinators. Many flowers have scents that are pleasing to the human nose, while others smell like rotting flesh to attract insects that feed on carrion. Some orchids produce a flower that resembles a female bee in color, shape, and smell. Male bees are tricked into moving from one orchid to the next in search of a mate.

One Delmarva pollinator has a fondness for the tubular red and orange flowers of cardinal flower, jewelweed, and trumpet vine, and is sure to delight those with native wildflowers in their backyard.

The Ruby-throated Hummingbird usually appears as a bright flash of iridescent green feeding on a flower or feeder. They migrate to Delmarva each spring from Central America, and are the Peninsula's only breeding hummingbird. The "ruby" comes from the shiny, bright red throat feathers of the showy male hummingbirds.

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are masters of flight, and have abilities not shared by most other birds. Their tiny wings beat at about 53 times per second. They can fly straight up and down, forwards and backwards, and can stop instantly and hover to feed on a wildflower. When feeding, they will aggressively defend their favorite flower from competitors, and participate in spectacular dogfights with other hummingbirds. They can also catch tiny insects in mid-air and pluck spiders from their webs.

While Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are fairly common today, other pollinator populations are crashing. Many species of bees and butterflies are in precipitous decline due to habitat loss and fragmentation, the improper use of pesticides, and disease. Throughout much of North America, native plants have been replaced with manicured lawns and farms that grow just one species of plant, such as corn or soybeans. Pesticides intended for agricultural pests claim other victims, and may cause side effects and weakened immune systems in some pollinators.

The iconic Monarch butterfly is one such pollinator in serious trouble. This big, brilliant, orange-and-black butterfly has declined 90 percent in recent years, mostly due to the loss of native milkweed habitat. Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweeds, and the caterpillars feed on the plant's leaves. Upon emergence from their cocoon as a fully-flighted adult butterfly, Monarchs soon begin their amazing migration on paper-thin wings across the United States to Mexico. The adult butterflies need suitable habitat along this incredible journey to feed on wildflowers. If the distance between feeding stops is too great, weak individuals won't make it to their winter roosts in Mexico.

We're fortunate that Delmarva's parks and refuges host wildflowers for Monarch butterflies and other pollinators, and that organizations such as the Adkins Arboretum help educate us with what we can do to help. Simply knowing that milkweed, jewelweed and cardinal flower provide sustenance to our native birds, bees and butterflies makes them much more beautiful than any cut domestic flower in a sterile vase.

Delawarewildflowers.org is a helpful photographic reference for identifying most of the wildflowers found here on the peninsula.

Find out more:
Adkins Arboretum
Federal Wildlife Service: Pollinators
Tuckahoe State Park
pollinator.org