Spring highlights Barataria wildflowers
MARRERO, La.— Strolling down a wooden boardwalk through the green swamps of the Barataria Preserve on a spring day in 2004, you would have been taken aback by fields of giant blue irises standing over three feet tall, raising their striking purple petals towards the sun.
In fact, the flowers were such a draw that the last weekend in March and the first three weekends in April were declared Wild Iris Weekends.
Around 1,500 people visited the park on each of these weekends, which included ranger led Wildflower Walks, canoe treks and a free shuttle between the Visitor Center and the best wildflower trails.
|Park Ranger Jim MacDonald points out the plantlife to a tour group along the Bayou-Coquille Trail (Photos by Nina Ruggiero). Below, a cluster of Daisy Fleabane flowers, found in all habitats of the preserve. Next, a Spiderwort, common in wet areas from March to May. Next, Dewberry flowers along the Visitor Center Trail. And last, Yellow Top flowers, found in all habitats of the preserve.
In spite of their popularity, Wild Iris Weekends were ended three years ago. Why? No more irises.
“The irises can’t stand salt water,” Park Ranger Jim MacDonald explained. “When Hurricane Rita came in 2005, there was too much salt water intrusion into this ecosystem, causing many of the plants to die off.”
The irises had a few years to recover, Park Ranger Jack Henkels added, but Hurricane Ike wiped them out once again in 2008.
Henkels said irises have been rare the past few two years and he has not seen any so far in 2010.
Now instead of Wild Iris Weekends, Barataria hosts Spring in the Swamp the last weekend in March and Fall Festival one weekend in November.
These weekends include dip-net fishing for kids, ranger tours and canoe rides.
“We wanted to focus on everything there is to see during springtime in the swamp, not just on one particular flower,” Henkels said. “In the spring when it gets warmer, alligators, grasshoppers, all the animals come out and new life is happening everywhere.”
There is plenty to see at Barataria including snakes, frogs and more than 300 species of birds, but that doesn’t mean flower lovers should turn in their wildflower identification guides just yet.
“Unfortunately the irises may never come back,” Barbara Everett, a frequent visitor and resident of nearby New Orleans whose own iris garden was destroyed, said, “but there are still lots of other little flowers around the trails.”
Barataria Preserve is located just 16 miles from the New Orleans French Quarter.
Around the preserve’s Visitor Center Trail the first weekend in April, clusters of little blue Spiderworts and dainty white Dewberries spotted the surrounding greenery.
“Everything is blooming late this year because of the unusually cold weather we’ve had,” Ranger Henkels said. Henkels said most of the spring bloomers should be showing their colors by late April.
Bees busily pollinated flowers on the Palmetto Trail, where yellow Buttercups grew between the Spiderworts and Dewberries. The Bayou Coquille Trail was the best spot to see this year’s early bloomers such as Wild Vetch, a wispy violet-hued plant.
“A few weeks ago, these were nothing but buds,” Ranger MacDonald said. He said that these flowers will be in bloom until June and that different species bloom in the fall.
Unlike the irises, some flowers have been positively affected by the hurricanes. Two such plants are the Wild Hibiscus, a light pink flower also called the Marsh Mallow, and the Dewberry flower. Now that so much flora has been destroyed by the storms, these ground dwellers benefit from more sunlight reaching them than ever before.
“We hardly had any Dewberries before Hurricane Katrina took out a bunch of our trees,” Henkels said. “Now they’re everywhere.”
Henkels said he has seen no correlation between the Spider Lily, which was often featured alongside the Giant Blue Iris on Wild Iris Weekends, and saltwater intrusion.
Although this white flower, with long, skinny petals resembling a spider’s legs, has not been seen yet this year, its presence is expected in the upcoming weeks.
Since flowers do grow everywhere and some are quite small, it is important to stay on the trails and watch your step. Many people step off the dirt trails and crush beautiful flowers beneath their feet.
A full list of the spring and fall wildflowers at Barataria can be found online (http://www.nps.gov/jela/naturescience/plants.htm) and at the Visitor Center. Take this with you and see what you can spot along your hikes. Wildflower Walks are held during Spring in the Swamp, but feel free to ask the rangers about the flowers on any ranger led walking tour.
If You Go:
Barataria Preserve: 6588 Barataria Blvd., Marrero, La.
From the city of New Orleans Barataria can be reached only by car or taxi.
From the French Quarter, take I-10 west to U.S. 90 west. Take Exit 4B to the Westbank Expressway and turn left on Barataria Boulevard.
Hours: Open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Dec. 25 and Mardi Gras.
Admission fees: None
Contact Info: 504-689-3690
Weather: Humid summers, usually mild winters. Bring insect repellent.
Fall Wildflower List: http://home.nps.gov/jela/naturescience/upload/Fall%20Wildflowers.pdf.
Spring Wildflower List: http://home.nps.gov/jela/naturescience/upload/Spring%20Wildflowers%20of%20Barataria.pdf.