Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve is a favorite for its spring ephemeral flowers. For a brief time when the weather starts to warm up, the wildflowers peek up from the ground and seek out the sunlight. Virginia bluebells, Dutchman’s breeches, Susquehanna trillium, golden ragwort, and around a dozen other spring ephemerals line the Gamber Wildflower Trail at Shenks Ferry, signaling the start of spring.
Here is what’s blooming at Shenks Ferry right now.
March 17, 2023
A few Dutchman’s breeches have started to appear at Shenks Ferry this week! The white and yellow blooms of this spring ephemeral look like little pairs of pants hanging on a line, giving this plant its name.
Dutchman’s breeches have a special relationship with queen bumblebees. The queen is the only member of her colony to survive the winter after being mated in the fall, and she emerges hungry when the weather warms up, explains Lancaster Conservancy Vice President Of Community Engagement Keith Williams. The queen bumblebee uses her long proboscis to get nectar and pollen from the Dutchman’s breeches, at the same time helping to pollinate the flower. The plant provides her with the fuel she needs to create her new nest.
The recent cold weather seems to have slowed down the growth at Shenks Ferry. Soon there will be Virginia bluebell flowers all over the preserve, but this week they are still mostly buds in shades of purple, blue, and pink peeking out from patches of leaves.
Although Keith notes that it isn’t a spring ephemeral, golden ragwort (Packera aurea) is a native plant, and I spotted some of it starting to grow at Shenks Ferry this week. Eventually it will have yellow flowers that attract pollinators like butterflies, but right now it has clusters of purple buds.
If you walk the Gamber Wildflower Trail at Shenks Ferry around this time, you’ll probably notice a large patch of purple-blue flowers. Those are non-native scilla.
Keith explained his recent Nature Hour presentation, “Spring in Bloom — A Guide to Our Native Ephemeral Wildflowers,” that non-native plants are not necessarily invasive — sometimes they become naturalized into an environment and can co-exist with the native species there without doing harm. Non-native species become invasive when they start outcompeting native ones, often leading to a reduction in biodiversity. Keith says that scilla is starting to become so abundant on some Conservancy nature preserves that he worries that it may be outcompeting native species.
Spring beauties are still blooming at Shenks Ferry this week, too. And Keith noticed some bloodroot, which gets white flowers with yellow centers, starting to grow there, as well.
This post will be updated weekly with the latest information on what is blooming at Shenks Ferry. We hope you enjoy your visit to the preserve and have a lovely spring in nature!
March 10, 2023
The spring beauties are still growing around Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve this week, their delicate light pink and white flowers poking up from the browns of fallen leaves and dirt. This native spring ephemeral has been one of the first to appear at the preserve this year.
While their purple-blue flowers aren’t quite fully open yet, native Virginia bluebells are making themselves known around the wildflower preserve, as well. Patches of their leaves are apparent all over, and some buds are starting to show.
According to Keith, Virginia bluebells’ nectar is stored at the base of a long tube, so insects trying to get the nectar end up having to pick up and spread the plants’ pollen (unless they eat through the flower at its base to steal the nectar that way).
Non-Native and Invasive Species
Unfortunately, while Shenks Ferry is home to many species of native spring ephemeral flowers, non-native and invasive species also grow there. The Lancaster Conservancy is constantly working to manage invasive species like garlic mustard and multiflora rose, but we must be very careful that in removing invasive species, we aren’t harming the native plants that we want to thrive.
For example, Conservancy staff and volunteers carefully pull garlic mustard from Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve, meticulously placing their feet to avoid stepping on any spring ephemerals. The garlic mustard grows around the same time as the ephemerals, so removing it is a very precise task.
The spring ephemerals are an exciting early sign of spring. But sadly many of the plants we see getting green first after winter are non-native or invasive. Penn State researchers found that “the longer period with leaves gives invasive plants an advantage in acquiring more energy from sunlight and their leaves create shade in early spring and late fall that may limit growth of native species, such as forest ephemeral wildflowers.”
You can help support the Conservancy’s work to manage these invasive species and give Pennsylvania’s native wildlife the opportunity to flourish.
March 2, 2023
Spring beauties were already popping up at Shenks Ferry at the end of February after (or technically, I guess, during) a generally warm winter. They have small blooms with pink and white stripes and typically grow about 4 to 6 inches tall, according to Penn State Extension. The flower can bloom for up to three weeks, according to Penn State Extension, and it is a nectar and pollen source for native bees.
On a walk last weekend, Keith also saw some Virginia bluebells starting to bud. Soon bluebells will seem to cover entire hillsides around Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve!
Learn more about spring ephemeral wildflowers, from biology to identification, in this Nature Hour presented by Keith Williams, Lancaster Conservancy Vice President Of Community Engagement.
What to Know Before You Visit
If you’re visiting Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve, there are a few things you should know to make sure you — and the wildflowers — have the best experience possible.
1. Visit during the week
Shenks Ferry is very busy during spring weekends, so visiting on a weekday can mean fewer people and more space to enjoy the flowers.
2. Leave No Trace
When you visit Shenks Ferry, take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footprints! Please stay on the trail so you don’t trample any flowers, and make sure you remove any waste you bring onto the preserve. Learn more about Leave No Trace principles here.
3. Know what you’re looking at
Want to identify the flowers you’re seeing? Download the Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve brochure! It details some of the most common spring ephemerals found at Shenks Ferry. You can also use an app like Seek by iNaturalist to help identify plants you see around the preserve.
4. Where to park
Please enter the preserve via Shenks Ferry Road, which will take you to the improved parking area and access trail. Green Hill Road south of the preserve is closed, which may not be reflected on GPS programs like Google Maps.
5. Support the stewardship of Shenks Ferry
Caring for this special wildflower sanctuary is an ongoing effort. Your support of Lancaster Conservancy allows for the continued careful stewardship of Shenks Ferry for the benefit of both nature and our community. Thank you for considering making a donation to ensure this special place is here for generations to come.
Thank you to our generous sponsor Brookhills Investment Group for making educational programming about Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve and the native plants it protects possible.