bloodroot (1)

A few feet from the busy highway, next to the Advance Auto Parts store on the outskirts of Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, two carloads of wildflower enthusiasts piled out and feasted their eyes on bloodroot, Dutchman’s-breeches, and the first purple trillium.

It might seem strange that so many delicate-seeming native perennials would flourish in what we like to think of waste places. But steep, rocky hillsides along roads and highways are among the few places where the over-abundant white-tailed deer don’t linger. Trash-strewn, noisy, polluted, and excessively vulnerable to weedy invasives though they may be, such places have become de facto wildflower preserves. You can walk for miles through the deer-haunted back-of-beyond and see little but brown from last year’s hayscented fern.

cutleaf toothwort

In a poem by Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Robin Fulton, the “Outskirts” are “an intermediate place, stalemate, neither city nor country,” and include “auto body repair shops in former barns.”

The stones throw their shadows abruptly like objects on the surface of the moon.
And these places just multiply.
Like what they bought with Judas’s money: “the potter’s field, to bury strangers in.”

hepatica (4)

But any place where trees are allowed to sprout and grow however they want, free from overzealous homeowners and unchecked herds of grazing animals alike, still offers the possibility of a sabbath — the return of balance to the earth’s economy. Profit and toil have not yet completely wrested it from the shyer and more indigent inhabitants of the earth. It still has the capacity to give more than it receives.

bloodroot (4)

The land bought with blood money in Matthew 27:6-8, or fertilized with blood according to Acts 1:18-20, became a kind of sanctuary too. What had been an economically exploited piece of ground — a source of potter’s clay — was converted into a refuge, with the author of Acts quoting from Psalms: Let no man dwell therein… In similar fashion, the best display we wildflower hunters found last Saturday was a few miles farther to the southeast along the same highway, at the base of what had once been a very active quarry for ganister stone: the Thousand Steps, now publicly owned and managed as a Pennsylvania state gameland. The mountainside has recovered remarkably well in just a few decades, and indeed, now serves as a refuge for a state-threatened species, the Allegheny woodrat. On a beautiful, warm spring day, the parking area along the highway was crowded with visitors intent on climbing the eponymous steps and taking in the view from the top. We seemed to be the only ones there to peer at the ground.

After the long winter,
the flowers too are eager
to face the sun.


A lull in traffic.
The wildflowers grow still
on their thin stalks.


View the complete slideshow from Saturday’s outing, or (for those with slower connections) browse the photoset.

22 Replies to “Aceldama”

  1. Ah, lovely! We saw a few spring beauties and little yellow composites on our last hike, and some trout lilies getting ready to flower. Maybe spring will come true, after all!

    1. Believe it! And thank whomever that, as far north as you are there in Vermont, the deer aren’t quite the scourge they are down here yet, I gather — and you’ll probably get your wolves back a lot sooner than we will.

  2. What staggering beauty there is for those who stop to look. The slideshow is wonderful Dave. Well done. Even here in rural Ceredigion, the winding road to Llanilar that brings us to our lane, has verges clogged with fast food detritus flung from passing cars. The verdant Summer growth will cover the worst of it, but even so something in my heart cracks every time I see a carelessly discarded can or polystyrene burger wrapper flung among the wood anemones and bluebells. Your photograph of pristine bloom next to a corroded drink can says it all. Beauty prevails, even when all the odds are stacked against it.

    1. The polystyrene and other plastics are a real offense, becasue they will never truly biodegrade, just break down into smaller and smaller particles (which become more and more likely then to become accidently ingested by something). Anything that rots or rusts doesn’t really bother me. Roadside air pollution can be really damage plants and soils, too. Anyway, glad you enjoyed the photos!

  3. Can’t really tell you how happy it makes me to see these bloodroot blossoms. The world stood still and quiet for a few moments. Thanks.

    1. Bloodroot was the main plant I went off the moutain to see on Saturday, so I was happy to see it too. Most years, by the time I get out for a wildflower ramble, the bloodroot is already done for the year. The twinleaf — last flower in the slideshow, looks a bit like bloodroot — was an especially fortunate find, as it is uncommon, and was mostly done flowering already. L. said the blossoms only last a couple days.

  4. what are those in the final photo with their leaves wrapped around their stems? they look as though they just stepped out of a warm bath!

  5. I really enjoyed this post Dave… especially this: “Profit and toil have not yet completely wrested it from the shyer and more indigent inhabitants of the earth. It still has the capacity to give more than it receives.”

    I went wildflowering this weekend in Pa. at Bowman’s Hill, down along the Delaware, and was thrilled to find many firsts for me (including the twinleaf which had me really confused for a while!)

    1. Oh, cool! I have yet to make it down to Bowman’s Hill, but I hear good things about it. That’s the one with deer fencing around the entire perimeter, right?

      Glad you liked the post.

  6. Yep… that’s the place. I overheard one of the docents, I think, complaining that some deer do still find their way in, due to the slowness of the electronic gates.


  7. Wonderful post, thanks. I remember your post on Transtromer years ago, one of the first things I read here. Still haven’t read him but I will!

  8. You must have picked the perfect time to go wildflowering. At least down here in Arkansas the window when all those species would be blooming at the same time is small.

    The woods around our place are far from pristine. They are mostly the steeper and rougher areas that haven’t yet been cleared for cow pastures, although the cows do have access. Still, they are abundant with spring wildflowers. I guess our whitetail population hasn’t yet been “over-restored” to the same extent as yours, although since reading your work I have started to notice that the vegetation atop large rocks is often more lush than it is in the surrounding woods.

    1. Well, I do think the slower springs are one of the big advantages of living in the north.

      Do you have poachers in your area? Year-round hunting pressure can mimic natural predation in making deer less willing to graze in the open by day. Or maybe the southern lushness makes it harder for deer to dominate the landscape the way they do here. I don’t know. But yes, the tops of boulders can act as mini refugia. See the first photo and first paragraph in this post, for example.

  9. Kia ora Dave,
    I find that picture of the emerging flower next to the rotting can stunning. Amazing how nature will eventually claim back the earth. Lessons to be learned there.

    1. Hi Robb – Glad you liked that one. I was really lucky to be there just when the flower’s shadow fell squarely on the top of the beer can.

    1. Hepatica is a nice flower. Not only is it one of the first to bloom, but it hangs on for a while, usually, and ranges in color from white to blue, often in the same patch. And it seems quite unparticular in regards to soil type as long as it’s a cool, semi-damp site.

  10. Stopping by to say I borrowed the photo of the bloodroot to illustrate a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem today. I hope you dont mind…. I will take it down if you prefer.

    I took a wildflower hike this past Saturday… in north Georgia and had fun taking pictures. They are not nearly as good as yours.

    Plus I loved the brown thrasher videos…. my favorite bird. I have a family of them who lives in my Cherokee Rose bush.

    Blessings from GA

    1. Hi Dana — As long as you give credit with a link back, as you’ve done (and don’t steal bandwidth, as you have not) I’m happy to see my material used elsewhere. As it happens, I just changed the licensing on my Flickr photos the day before yesterday to conform with the licensing I use here (it’s all the way down in the footer). And one couldn’t wish for better company than GMH! Thanks.

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