May 13, 2008 Mystery of the Misplaced Trilliums

This is a tale of that beloved wildflower family, the Trilliums.  Several years ago, while I was jogging along a floodplain trail in Battle Creek, Michigan, I noticed some pink flowers off to the side of the path.  Even without my standard issue baby boomer lineless bifocals, I could see that these blossoms were trilliums–those beautiful Midwestern spring wildflowers that start out as pure white, then fade through stages of pink into deep magenta.  Then I spotted a second variety of trillium–a yellow toadshade with leaves patterned in light and deep shades of green–that I had never seen before.  After getting off the trail, I drove back to my in-law’s home, where my wife and I were staying, then told my story and brought back reinforcements–my wife and her parents.  Together we found two more species of trilliums in the same vicinity.

Three years later, I’m back in Battle Creek, inhaling the rich aroma of corn flakes cooking at the Kelloggs factory.  It is the same time of year as before–that wonderful time in early May when Michigan reawakens from its long winter sleep in shades of bluebirds and blue skies and yellow warblers and green oak leaves newly emerging.  The same bunch, plus my mother, walked out to the trillium trail to see if the forest was as alive with trilliums as  it had been before.  It was!  We saw the same species as previously, plus we noticed enough variation that we felt there was probably some hybridizing going on among these related species.

Now for the mystery: why are these trilliums here?.  They are growing in a floodplain forest that includes such flood-loving woody species as Sycamore, Hackberry, Silver Maple, Cottonwood, Poison Ivy, and Box Elder.  When we looked at the range maps for the trillium species we identified, it appears that all could be here on their own, without any help from wildflower gardeners.  And some of these species seem to be little-known, except among botanists, because they grow in formidable habitats (as in, “watch for poison ivy!”).  But they are growing in a linear strip perhaps 20 feet wide, paralleling the trail for about 200 yards, and just off the mowed portion of trail.  The thing is, I can’t find a single trillium anywhere else along the trail.  Yet these trilliums are thriving on their own in this one location.  Were they planted as a garden club project?  Is this just the last surviving patch of the native spring flora?  I wish I had a botanist’s 911 number that I could call to help with this emergency!

The photographs below represent my best from about two hours of photography.  I used a digital SLR at ISO 400 (to help with a wind problem) and a ball-head tripod for all these shots.  In addition, I also variously used a 100mm macro lens, a 24-105mm zoom lens, a polarizing filter, and a diffusion screen to cut contrast on these sunny days.  And Adobe Bridge and Photoshop to clean up the leaves and petals.  You will notice that for some frames, I wanted every detail to be tack-sharp; for other pictures, only I wanted only the focal point to be sharp.

Like many originally Midwestern nature photographers, I started out my photography by photographing wildflowers, and I still return to the subject every year with renewed passion.  In the last decade, nature photography has fallen severely out-of-fashion, as the sophisticated crowd has moved on to European and exotic travel (think of traditional National Geographic portrayals of unfamiliar people) and still-life photography as being the oh-so-trendy subjects.  Even in outdoor magazines such as National Geographic Adventure, Outside, and Audubon, photography that does not include people is considered too static–as if readers don’t have the imagination or creativity to see themselves in a wild scene.  I think this parallels American alienation from nature.  Many people call themselves environmentalists or love action sports in wild places–but few have developed a deep love of the very elements of those places.  Environmentalists too often think in abstractions and adventure sports enthusiasts too often look at wilderness as a challenging outdoor gym.  I prefer to move through the forest, camera in hand, with a sense of wonder at all that surrounds me.  And if that leaves me hopelessly unfashionable, so be it.

 

This is part of a weblog documenting my travels and photography. I am primarily a nature photographer, and you can see more of my work at http://www.leerentz.com

Click on the photographs below to see a larger version with caption.

Explore posts in the same categories: conservation, environment, michigan, nature, outdoor, photo, photography, plant, wildflower

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