By Bob Gale
Woodland wildflower populations, and the forest communities in which they occur, are two major components of the southeast which attract countless visitors and bind long-time residents to this region. These natural systems are closely connected and offer sustenance for a variety of wildlife species associated with them.
In an undisturbed southeastern forest community, a premiere highlight is the proliferation of beautiful spring “ephemeral” wildflowers. These clever plants have adapted over millions of years to develop the best strategy to promote their species in a difficult low light setting.
Spring ephemerals have evolved their life cycles to burst forth in flower in late winter and early spring, while deciduous canopy trees are still dormant or just beginning to leaf out. By late spring to early summer, when the forest canopy closure is complete, ephemeral flowers have already blossomed, become pollinated, and their petals are withering away, offering no hint at the spectacular floral beauty that so deeply enchanted onlookers only a short time before.
These sun-loving flowers and shade-producing trees are hardly enemies, though. Both have worked in tandem over the millennia to build a rich and deep organic soil structure which is an important ecosystem unto itself. Critical to all of this forest plant life are the mycorrhizal soil fungi which facilitate uptake of minerals and water, and the diverse forest-dwelling insects and bees which pollinate such plant species.
A threat to this ecological balance comes in the form of disturbance. To be sure, some disturbance is natural. Storms and micro-bursts create treefalls which often pull up giant tree root systems, exposing areas of soil. Occasionally, a hurricane creates a large area of disturbance. But the wildflower/forest partnership easily survives these widely occurring and mostly localized disruptions.
A much greater threat comes from the human-caused disturbance of forest clearing, which has occurred at an exponential rate never before encountered by these natural communities. Their mechanisms of damage control and repair are simply overwhelmed by this assault. Forest clearing for development, highways, and wood, paper and the energy industry can result in permanent injury and disruption to these ecosystems.
In many southeastern states, protective wetland regulations are suspended for timbering on private lands, so clearing equipment regularly plows through wetlands and bogs, dragging logs with them at the expense of many herbaceous plants, some of which may be very rare. And, an unexpected result in such heavily disturbed settings can be an invasion of non-native plants from Asia or Europe, introduced intentionally or by accident, but which outcompete and displace many native species.
In recent years, many citizens, organizations, and agencies have added thousands of acres of forests under protection through public lands and private conservation easements. They have also protected and restored populations of ephemeral flowers with their awesome spring displays. Public forest management has greatly improved, as well. But many privately owned lands remain threatened with unsustainable forestry practices, including the very real and present threat of increased logging of southeastern forests to feed the new biomass energy industry.