White trillium cover a hillside with wide three-corner flowers and the pungent odor of … old socks.
“Remind you of your locker room days?” said Carrieanne Petrik-Huff, laughing.
She had just led a wildflower walk at Bartholomew’s Cobble as the Trustees of Reservations’ engagement manager for Southern Berkshire County and found a patch of them with Brian Cruey, Trustees’ general manager for Southern Berkshire County.
Wildflowers thrive at the Cobble in Sheffield.
“It’s a natural phenomenon, here every year,” Cruey said. “It’s one reason Bartholomew’s Cobble is a National Natural Landmark — we have more than 800 varieties of rare plants, and most of them are spring ephemerals.”
They bloom in this short space of time when the snow has melted and the trees have not yet opened their leaves and the sun reaches the forest floor. Snow melt and light make the soil moist and warm.
“It’s a display unparalleled in North America,” he said, “in its amount, diversity and variety, and we wanted to make people aware of it. … The Cobble is not one of the more well-known places in Berkshire County, and it should be.”
He has imagined and Petrik-Huff has brought together a new wildflower festival, and local volunteers are making it happen. They will lead tours into early May, winding up with a camp fire and celebration on May 6.
Finding people from the community who want to meet the flowers on the ground has moved Petrik-Huff.
“It’s magic to me,” she said.
Brece Honeycutt is is one of them. She is a sculptor living in Sheffield, and she often walks here, she said. She and her husband hiked up Hurlbut Hill on New Years Day, and she has come here looking for spring before. This winter she signed up to spend five raw, wet Saturdays with naturalists and books and bagels, preparing to become a volunteer guide.
“What a reward, though,” she said — to learn about trout lilies and wait for them and see them now on a sunny afternoon.
On a trail along the river she pointed out walking ferns slowly covering the face of a boulder.
The rocks, the cobbles that give the place its name, also give it a unique density and diversity of wildflowers. Limestone, marble and quartzite form unusual soil, said Petrik-Huff, who has a background in geology.
The rocks kept farmers off the land. Along the river, warm air moves off the water and sunlight reflects off the low rock walls, warming the hollows. And the river water enriches the land.
At a time when people have been taking a close look at the chemical composition of the river, “The Cobble is a great way to experience the beauty of it,” she said. The river has cut through the rocks, leeched minerals from them and nourished the soil in the flats along the valley.
Honeycutt pointed out quartzite running in bright white bands in limestone boulders. Ferns grows thickly along the tops — maidenhair and polypody.
She found wild ginger opening dark tubes of blossoms along the path.
“Spring ephemerals have a lot to do in a couple of weeks,” she said.
When the earliest of them bloom, pollinators are scarce, but some insects are waking up. Ants are scouting for food, and plants that want to attract them have scents the ants may enjoy more than people do. Wild ginger has a rank smell, like the trilliums.
Each guide designs their own tour, she said, around the stories they have learned about the wildflowers and their names and uses and lives. Honeycutt brings writers into hers, reading from poems and letters.
Emily Dickinson was known in her lifetime as a gardener more than as a writer, she said. Dickinson kept a herbarium, a book of plants, more than 400 of them, and many of them now grow here.
She too spent spring mornings walking out with friends and searching for “trailing arbutus, adder’s tongue, yellow violets, liver-leaf, blood-root and many other smaller flowers. …”
Along the Housatonic, Honeycutt found bloodroot unfurling, white petals around a yellow center. Yellow and white Dutchman’s Breeches frothed over the rocks, shaped like tiny trousers with the ankles pointing to the sky.
Only queen bumblebees can pollinate them, Honeycutt said, because only they have a tongue long enough to taste the nectar. They begin to fly when the days reach 41 degrees, so they are awake when the early flowers bloom.
The show will go on into early May, and it will change day by day as early flowers fade and new ones open. The pale purple hepatica are going by as the blue cohosh begin to bud. Lemon-yellow trout lilies begin to uncurl, and the columbine are sending up shoots. In another week or two they will cover the marble boulders with bright red blooms, and hummingbirds will drink from them.
“Everything has its cycle and changes over time,” Petrik-Huff said.
In the swampy ground along the river, Honeycutt finds a flourishing growth of what Mary Oliver calls “brash, turnip-hearted skunk cabbage.” The bright green leaves get their name from their musky smell, she said, but bears and ring-necked pheasants eat them, and they can last and return in the same place for generations — researchers have found skunk cabbage with roots 300 years old.
“The design of nature is astonishing to me,” Petrik-Huff said. “… You could never imagine this. When I’m hanging out with a skunk cabbage, this is what I think about.”
Photo at the top: White trillium bloom at Bartholomew’s Cobble. Photo by Kate Abbott
If you go …
What: Wildflowers tours
When: 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. daily through May 6
Camp fire and celebration 8 to 10 p.m. May 6
During school vacation week (April 18 – 22), all children get in free and a special children’s tour will depart from the Visitor’s Center at 10 a.m., followed by creative scientific experiments.
Where: Bartholomew’s Cobble, Wheatogue Road, Sheffield
Wildflower Watercolor: Workshops noon to 4 p.m. Thursdays through May 11