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Five hot spots for wildflowers

| Sunday, March 16, 2008

I'm often asked about my favorite place to see spring wildflowers.

I don't have one favorite place.

But here are five locations that stand out.

Trillium Trail, Fox Chapel, Allegheny County: The highlight is the great white trillium blooming around the first week in May. I've visited this area for more than 30 years and have seen its ups and downs.

In the 1970s, Trillium Trail had one of the most spectacular shows of trillium in Pennsylvania. The slopes under maturing hardwoods of sugar maple and black cherry were a blanket of plants so thick that, at peak, it looked like a late winter snow had fallen in this one valley.

The slopes and bottomlands also have plenty of other native wildflowers, including red trillium, bluebells early in the season, both toothworts, bishop's cap, jack-in-the-pulpit, wild geranium and several species of violets.

Unfortunately, in the early 1990s, a burgeoning white-tailed deer herd discovered Trillium Trail, and in a matter of a couple of nights, the hillsides were denuded of wildflowers. This happened a couple years in a row, and the colony seriously declined. Fox Chapel Borough took steps to remedy the problem, and a fence was erected surrounding the best of the stand. Now the trillium are coming back, and with continued good stewardship, the colony will slowly return to its former glory.

Trillium Trail is just off the Fox Chapel exit of Route 28 on Squaw Run Road, just past the entrance to the Pittsburgh Field Club. There are small parking areas along the road and trails inside the fenced area.

Judge D.M. Miller Fall Run Park, Shaler, Allegheny County: This 94-acre park is not very well-known, but it is the largest park in Shaler. It once belonged to the Pennsylvania Game Commission, but as suburban development surrounded the secluded wooded valley, hunting no longer was feasible, and the land was acquired by the township.

It is a steep, narrow valley with a small stream, Fall Run, in the center. At the eastern end of the park is a waterfall, which is best viewed in the spring, when there is plenty of water to provide a nice show.

The valley has a nice array of wildflowers beginning with bloodroot in the early spring and continuing through the season with trillium, both white and red, jack-in-the pulpit, wild geranium, Dutchman's breeches, spring beauties, a variety of violets and great bellwort.

There is a parking lot at the entrance to the valley and a single trail that leads along the stream to the waterfall at the far end. A set of steps is next to the waterfall and provides access to the upper parts of the park.

Fall Run Park is on Fall Run Road off of Route 8 in Shaler.

The Wildflower Reserve, Raccoon Creek State Park, Beaver County: The Wildflower Reserve has been a popular area for many years. It once was a private hunting club, but during non-hunting season, several Western Pennsylvania naturalists would visit the area, and they documented more than 500 species of native plants, many of which bloomed in the spring.

This was a project of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, which opened it to the public in 1962. The conservancy transferred the land to adjacent Raccoon State Park in 1971, and the facilities and trail are maintained by the state.

There are miles of trails along the uplands and onto the floodplains of Raccoon and Traverse creeks. These trails honor the memory of the naturalists who roamed the property -- people such a Dr. O.E. Jennings, former curator of plants and director of Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and Max Henrici, outdoor columnist for the former Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph.

With the abundance of bottomlands, this area has some species you won't find at Trillium Trail or Judge D.M. Miller Fall Run Park. Skunk cabbage is an early bloomer and should be past flower by now, with the large, green, smelly leaves beginning to enlarge and giving the landscape a wonderful green blanket. Several violet species are common.

There also are some rarities, including salt-and-pepper or harbinger-of-spring, a small inconspicuous species in the carrot family. Check with the naturalist at the park to see whether these species have been seen this year and whether they are in bloom.

The Wildflower Reserve is on Route 30. The entrance is just before the main entrance to Raccoon Creek State Park. Trail maps are available at the Wildflower Reserve office.

Cedar Creek Gorge, Cedar Creek Park, Westmoreland County: The deep, sinuous gorge of Cedar Creek is short, but makes up for it with a spectacular show in the spring. It's sort of the perfect storm of wildflowers.

Many of the previously mentioned species from other areas are found here, but there are several plants not often found elsewhere. The most prominent of these is snow trillium. The smaller version of the larger white trillium is abundant along the upper-southern, north-facing slopes of the gorge close to its mouth where the stream meets the Youghiogheny River.

The other species that always has stood out at Cedar Creek is yellow trout-lily. There are nice colonies of this plant near the mouth of the gorge and up on the steep slope.

Cedar Creek County Park is 464 acres, just off of Route 51, and just north of the intersection of Route 51 and Interstate 70. The entrance road is a little difficult to find, but once you're headed in the right direction, take the road through the uplands of the park and down into the Youghiogheny River valley. The parking lot for the trail through the gorge is at the end of the road, which parallels the Great Allegheny Passage bike trail.

A map of the park can be found online .

Wolf Creek Natural Area , near Slippery Rock, Butler County: In 1979, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy bought a 100-acre tract along Wolf Creek in Butler County. The area had been recognized 30 years earlier by the late Dr. Frank Preston, an eminent naturalist who mapped the glacial boundaries of northwestern Pennsylvania.

Although the land is an important example of how glaciers changed the face of this part of Pennsylvania, it also is an incredible place for spring wildflowers. Along the one-mile trail that first follows Wolf Creek, then climbs to the uplands through a sugar maple/black cherry forest with a carpet of great white trillium, are a variety of wildflowers, some of which are rare.

Along the bottomlands are blue bells, dwarf ginseng, squirrel corn, Canada anemone and plenty of spring beauties. The uplands have a nice display of white trillium and violets.

The rarest of the plants found here in the spring is the white fawn lily, found along the first section of trail near the entrance.

Wolf Creek doesn't stop with the spring show. In June, Turk's-cap lilies are abundant in the bottomlands near the entrance to the Natural Area.

Wolf Creek Natural Area is on West Water Street from Slippery Rock. West Water Street is one block northwest of the intersection of routes 108 and 173, the main intersection in Slippery Rock. The entrance to the area is at the east end of the bridge over Wolf Creek. For more information, visit .

It is always difficult to predict just when the peak of the wildflower bloom will be. Generally, the more southern and western places are earlier, and the northern and eastern later.

Most spring wildflowers bloom during the second week in April to the third week in May. There are some that have begun, such as skunk cabbage, which could be seen in flower the second week in March. But the showy trillium, violets, Dutchman's breeches, trout lilies and many others are in the mid-April to mid-May range.

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