Making every day Earth Day at Viola Irvine Nature Preserve

A walk among the woodland wildflowers with Cathy Irvine

Blooming Virginia bluebells dot the woodland floor in the southeast corner of the Viola Irvine Nature Preserve in Dysart on April 23. PHOTO BY SOREN M. PETERSON

DYSART – One of the best ways to enjoy the outdoors this time of year is to take a woodland walk in search of spring ephemerals – and there’s no better place to do so than in Dysart’s own urban woodland, the Viola Irvine Nature Preserve.

With the guidance of local conservationist Cathy Irvine, the Telegraph planned just such a walk for Earth Day last Saturday but the weather had other ideas and the trace of perplexing late April snow pushed the walk to the next day.

Under a mostly clear sky and with the snow melted away, Irvine took us on a late morning Sunday walk through the wooded two-acre parcel she recently donated to the city in memory of her late mother-in-law Viola who once lived on the property.

Located on the southeast side of town behind 310 Sherman Street, the trail was planted last spring and fall with several varieties of native woodland flowers – often referred to as spring ephemerals for their brief blooms – by Cathy.

“Bluebells, wood poppy, wild geranium, May apples, Virginia waterspout, Jacob’s ladder, bloodroot …” Cathy replied when asked to list some of the flowers she planted.

A stalk of Dutchman’s breeches in bloom along the trail at Viola Irvine Nature Preserve last Sunday in Dysart. PHOTO BY SOREN M. PETERSON

On that particularly cool day in late April, Virginia bluebells – best identified by their dense clusters of pink to purple ‘bells’ – seemed to be the most prolific ephemeral currently in bloom with a low-growing forest of the flower present in the far southeast corner of the property.

Nearby, several burned coffee cans were just peaking above the surface of the ground. Cathy explained she and her friend Cathy Wiecke – a member of the Dysart Tree Board – recently planted the stratified acorns of bur oaks in the cans in hopes of broadening the preserve’s tree canopy to its edges.

White, yellow, and purple violets also dotted the landscape at the preserve, laying a thick bunchy carpet for rabbits and the resident fox to scamper and pad across.

As we continued along the trail, Cathy pointed to where wood poppies would soon be in bloom, possibly in the next couple of days – “Any time now,” Cathy assured. The wood poppy features a yellow bloom set against low-growing, fuzzy, lobed, green leaves.

While there was not a large variety in bloom yet in the woods on Sunday, Cathy did locate what can only be described as one of the happiest spring ephemerals on the block – Dutchman’s breeches which is in peak bloom across Iowa currently.

Dutchman’s breeches in bloom at Dysart’s Viola Irvine Nature Preserve on April 23, following an Earth Day dusting of snow the day before. PHOTO BY SOREN M. PETERSON

For the uninitiated, spotting a tendril of Dutchman’s breeches shooting out of the ground is a visual treat. The flower features a stalk of delicate, white to pink blossoms resembling upside-down trousers – as if a tiny woodland sprite left his or her laundry out to dry.

“There’ll be Jacob’s ladder all over here soon,” Cathy said while motioning around her. Up until that point, she had pointed out green plant after plant of the species, each seemingly waiting for just the right moment to display its purple blooms with the yellow centers.

With her new pup friend Ollie, a beagle-harrier, in tow – her beloved beagle Duckie recently passed away – Cathy lamented the cool weather but said it allowed woodland flower blooms to persist longer.

“I didn’t even want to go outside yesterday [Earth Day]. I pretended I didn’t see it, the snow,” Cathy said with a chuckle. “But I told myself if this were January, I would think it was a lovely day.”

It’s been 53 years since Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson organized the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, in response to what he and millions more like him saw as a failing of the U.S. government to protect the environment.

Ollie, local conservationist Cathy Irvine’s beagle-harrier, waits patiently on the trail at Viola Irvine Nature Preserve last Sunday in Dysart during a woodland wildflower walk. PHOTO BY SOREN M. PETERSON

A decade later in April of 1980 in recognition of that first event – and some nine years after the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency – Sen. Nelson wrote in an essay, “We are not free to decide about whether or not our environment ‘matters.’ It does matter, apart from any political exigencies. We disregard the needs of our ecosystem at our mortal peril. That was the great lesson of Earth Day. It must never be forgotten.”

While the spring woodland blooms will soon be just a memory for another year, the spirit of Nelson’s first Earth Day thrives year-round for anyone and everyone who visits the woods of Viola Irvine Nature Preserve in Dysart.

For those looking to take a woodland wildflower walk of their own like Cathy, the Woodland Wildflower Weekly Report published by the Iowa Dept. of Natural Resources is a good source for what’s currently in bloom throughout Iowa’s woodlands. Find the weekly report here: https://www.iowadnr.gov/Conservation/Forestry/Woodland-Wildflower

Spring-blooming scilla that escaped from a neighboring property long ago pictured on April 23 near the edge of the Viola Irvine Nature Preserve located behind 310 Sherman Street in Dysart. PHOTO BY SOREN M. PETERSON

A bunch of Virginia bluebells blooming on Sunday, April 23, at the Viola Irvine Nature Preserve in Dysart. PHOTO BY SOREN M. PETERSON