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April 21, 2013

The Beauties of Spring: Stunning array of wildflowers bloom each spring in Collett Park

TERRE HAUTE — Groundskeepers put off the first mowing of Collett Park each spring.

Admirers of the place, Terre Haute’s oldest park, like it that way.

A stunning array of wildflowers covers the 21-acre lawn for a few short weeks. Those plants, known as “spring beauties,” emerge in March, bloom in April and go dormant by May, when the brilliant waves of white and pink flowers disappear. Terre Haute Parks Department crews have learned to idle their lawnmowers until that moment, when Collett Park’s popular spring beauty season ends. Park-goers gladly endure a little tall grass to enjoy the display.

“So, we’d rather see complaints about cutting too late than too early,” explained Billy Hubbard of the city parks department.

 The sight is worth it, neighbors say.

“The park looks like it’s covered in snow,” said Anna Lee Chalos-McAleese.

Her memories of the scenery date back to her childhood, when her family lived in the neighborhood. A half-century later, Chalos-McAleese lives near Collett again and has become an aficionado of wildflowers, with a collection of books about such plants. A handful of varieties grow in her yard, including blood root, wood columbine, jack-in-the-pulpit and, of course, spring beauties. The latter sprout from bulbs that resemble onions.

“I found them interesting in that the Native Americans ate the bulbs,” Chalos-McAleese said.

Indeed, spring beauty bulbs taste “like little potatoes,” said Rob Jean, an assistant professor at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. Jean knows the wildflower well, having studied spring beauties as part of his master’s thesis at Indiana State University in the 1990s.

The plant, scientifically known as Claytonia virginica, is common in west-central Indiana and the eastern United States. It is normally found, though, in woodlands, especially those with lots of beech and maple trees. The abundance of spring beauties in an urban setting, such as Collett Park, is a bit unusual. “I think that is what makes this population special,” Jean said.

Collett’s patch of spring beauties is likely a remnant of a forest that once stood there, before the park opened in 1883. Like most woodlands wildflowers, the Claytonia virginica is a spring ephemeral, a perennial plant that can live for decades, but is only visible above ground for a few weeks each year. The flower thrives in Indiana. “There’s just something about the climate here that’s ideal for them,” said Peter Scott, an ISU ornithologist and associate professor of biology.

Two leaves rise from each plant’s bulb and generate three to 20 flowers, but rarely more than two blooms at once. Pink and white lines on the saucer-shaped flowers guide dozens of bee and fly species to its pollen and nectar, which sustains the plants and others. “It attracts lots of pollinators, which is good because it helps other flowers and trees and early gardens,” Jean said. When the plant’s ovaries open up, shiny black seeds spill out and ants lug them to their nests to gorge on the seeds’ tasty oily coating. The ants’ ritual disperses the seeds.

The pollinating insects, the ants, the conditions and the restrained mowing adds up to a perfect storm of spring beauties at Collett, located north of downtown at the corner of Seventh Street and Maple Avenue. Scott and his students have spotted smaller plots in other parks, including the more rural Hawthorn and Prairie Creek in the Vigo County Parks system. The same wildflowers currently brighten the grounds of the historic Merom Conference Center in Sullivan County.

“Here in Indiana, we have one of the most spectacular wildflower displays in the world,” Jean said, emphasizing that other Eastern states do, too.

Within a city, though, Collett’s spring beauty crop remains somewhat unique. “You do see them in some yards in Terre Haute,” Jean said, “but I don’t know that I’ve seen them in that kind of density — at least several hundred in a square meter. It’s kind of amazing. It’s like a blanket of white.” He estimates the number of spring beauties in the park is in the millions.

The yearly rise of the spring beauties may lead to a “fun day” dedicated to the wildflowers next spring by the recently re-formed Collett Park Neighborhood Association, Chalos-McAleese said.

Jean, whose interest in plants and insects sparked as a student in Scott’s ISU classes, has become one of a handful of Midwestern experts in identifying bees, such as the ones visiting the spring beauties for pollen and nectar. Through those studies, he’s seen the colorful ground cover at Collett Park as worthy of notice.

“I think the flower display at Collett Park is truly special and deserves recognition,” he said.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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