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As daffodils, cherry blossoms and other domesticated flowers are blooming in yards all over New Haven, wildflowers such as marsh marigolds, trout lilies and spring beauties are showing their colors as well. Enjoying them just requires a little more effort.

In Connecticut Wildlife (2004), Geoffrey A. Hammerstein notes that nearly all early spring wildflowers are perennials, having stored enough resources during the previous year to produce flowers now instead of later. They typically bloom prior to the formation of a leaf canopy, when more sunlight reaches the forest floor. Aptly called spring ephemerals, these plants flower, produce seeds and soon die back, leaving primarily underground plant structures until the next spring. Poking through the leaf litter in Connecticut forests, their delicate, short-lived blooms are like the prizes of a natural scavenger hunt.

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So, hunting I went. Bright sunshine and a warm breeze greeted me as I headed into the woods at the Stony Creek Quarry, Van Wie and Kelley Preserves in Branford. These and other locations are managed by the Branford Land Trust with the aim of protecting local natural resources. Forming a contiguous area latticed with several walking trails, these three preserves surround the still-active Stony Creek Quarry. Relics including an old thick metal cable and large slabs of granite along the trail hinted at past quarrying too.

The Green trail meandered up and down, over hills and rocky outcrops, but was never particularly steep. Coming over one rise, a bit of color among the leaves caught my searching eye, so I bent down for a closer look. No wildflowers yet, though. Instead, several large and brightly patterned bird feathers glistened in the sun.

When I came to a fork, I opted for the Yellow trail to the right, with the goal of making a loop. At another fork, the trail continued right again and I followed it, thinking I might peek into the quarry area noted on my map. When I was close enough to hear the sound of machinery in the distance, several signs indicated the danger of getting closer to the edge. Tempting as it was to explore further, I heeded their warnings, retracing my steps and picking up the Red trail instead.

A chorus of birdsong provided a pleasant soundtrack as I scanned the brown leaves and emerging greenery on the forest floor for a pop of color. Turning west on the Blue trail, I descended from a low ridge to a small stream. There, in the moist ground near the flowing water, I hit paydirt. Yellow trout lilies were scattered about in between the rocks and roots. Single yellow flowers nodded downward on each stem, above mottled green and brown leaves. On many of the blooms, the petals curved backward, revealing the brown stamens inside.

Stepping onto the small bridge to cross the water, I noticed some marsh marigolds, members of the buttercup family. Growing in clumps at the waterโ€™s edge and in shallow areas of the stream, the sunny yellow blossoms were surrounded by green foliage and swayed in the slight breeze. While attempting to photograph themโ€”and not trample any plants or get wet feetโ€”I startled two frogs that had been sunning nearby, a bonus nature sighting. Satisfied for now, I picked up my pace as the Blue trail turned to Green and headed south to my car.

After two days of rain, another spring morning dawned mostly clear and I ventured to a second Branford Land Trust property, the Branford Supply Ponds, which connects to other preserves as well. From the northernmost parking area, I started exploring the Orange trail. The air was fresh and moist and birds were plentiful. The terrain seemed promising for wildflowers, though, in a long stretch to the right of the trail, the woodland floor was instead carpeted with non-native periwinkle.

I doubled back and then headed up the Red trail into the woods, where some trees showed significant damage from the heavy storms of the last few years. Just when I thought the brush and downed trunks must be covering any small plants, I rounded a corner to find several patches of spring beauties. Earning their name, these delicate flowers had gorgeous veins of purple on white petals, with touches of yellow towards the center. The tiny blooms were less than an inch across. After capturing some photos, I continued along the path, turning right twiceโ€”onto a trail marked red/blue, then onto one marked yellow/orangeโ€”to return to the parking area.

There were some spring ephemerals I was hoping to see but didnโ€™t, like dutchmanโ€™s breeches and bloodroot. But the real prize was time spent in the local woods to celebrate the end of a long, locked-down winter.

Written and photographed by Stephanie Wratten.

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