CONESTOGA, Pa. (WHTM) — The blues, purples, pinks and whites of spring ephemeral wildflowers line the trails of the Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve. Throughout the year, about 70 different species of wildflower grow on the preserve, but the spring ephemerals will only be around for about a month.

In the short window of time after the weather starts to warm up and before the trees get their leaves and block the sunlight, these wildflowers poke their heads out of the ground and get busy. They photosynthesize, making starches and sugars to store in their roots for the rest of the year, and they reproduce, explains Keith Williams. Williams is the community engagement coordinator for the Lancaster Conservancy, which manages Shenks Ferry.

Photo gallery: Spring ephemerals blooming at the Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve

The great diversity of flora on the preserve has not been intentionally planted there by the Lancaster Conservancy — they are, indeed, wildflowers. Instead, the land’s long history of protection by first the PPL Project and now the Conservancy has enabled the flowers to flourish naturally, Williams says.

Additionally, the geology and topography of Shenks Ferry create various environments and microclimates that are best suited to different species, explains Williams. Two different types of bedrock (schist and limestone) create two different kinds of soils. On top of that, the terrain provides slopes facing all cardinal directions and offering different amounts of light and moisture.

The wildflowers are beautiful on their own, but they also contribute to the ecosystems around them. “There’s a lot of other stories going on here besides just the flowers,” says Williams. For example, one type of wildflower, the Dutchman’s breeches, has a special relationship with bumblebees.

Dutchman’s breeches wildflowers at Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve / Credit: Avery Van Etten

Queen bumblebees survive the winter underground after mating in the fall, Williams explains, and they’re the only survivors from their colonies. When they emerge in the spring, they’re hungry and on the hunt for nectar and pollen.

“Because those Dutchman’s breeches are one of the first flowers up, that’s what they’re seeking. And so that queen bumblebee totally depends on that Dutchman’s breeches for nectar and pollen to not only fuel her but also fuel her colony,” says Williams. After the queen bee satisfies her hunger, she goes back underground and lays her eggs. Her babies will then feed off of the nectar and pollen, as well.

It’s not just a one-way relationship, either. Bumblebees rely on the Dutchman’s breeches, but the flowers also rely on the bees for pollination.

The connection between flowers and insects is an important one, but as Williams points out, insect populations are declining. An article by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation states, “A recent analysis by the Xerces Society and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) found that 28% of bumblebees in Canada, the United States, and Mexico are in an IUCN Threatened Category.”

A bumblebee visits a Virginia bluebell flower at Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve / Credit: Avery Van Etten

Another challenge for the wildflowers at Shenks Ferry is non-native plant species. Sometimes the non-native species are introduced to the preserve from nearby landscaping. In other cases, they were historically brought to the area for a purpose before more recent research revealed the damage non-native species can do.

The non-native plants are a threat because they outcompete native species for resources. Some non-native species even perform “chemical warfare” on their neighbors, emitting compounds into the soil that inhibit the growth of other nearby plants, says Williams.

When non-native species outcompete the native ones, the biodiversity of the area declines, Williams explains. “A diverse ecosystem is a resilient ecosystem, and so the more different kinds of plants and animals that we have natively growing here with all those eons-old relationships, like the queen bee and the Dutchman’s breeches, the more resilient it is to disturbance,” he says.

Biodiverse ecosystems are able to bounce back more quickly from things like fires and storms. And more plant diversity supports more diversity up the food chain. “One of the reasons why we think we’re seeing a significant decline in insect life — and birdlife, by the way — is because of a reduction in native plants,” says Williams.

The Lancaster Conservancy manages non-native plants on preserves like Shenks Ferry, with volunteers pulling the unwanted plants from the ground before they seed. However, the non-native species present a bit of a “management dilemma,” Williams explains, because the volunteers could potentially trample the native species while walking off the trail to remove non-native growth.

Williams and others try to get rid of as many non-native plants as possible before the spring ephemerals begin blooming. He says the Lancaster Conservancy plays an important role in protecting biodiversity around the county by doing this kind of work to preserve and maintain natural spaces.

Notes on visiting Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve:

The spring ephemerals are currently blooming, so the best time to see them is likely in the next few weeks. Williams reminds Shenks Ferry visitors to stay on the trails to avoid harming the plants. Guests should also be sure to remove any garbage or other items they bring onto the preserve.

Visitors approaching Shenks Ferry from the south should be aware that Green Hill Rd. is closed south of the preserve. Guests should instead access Shenks Ferry from the north via River Rd., Shenks Ferry Rd. and then Green Hill Rd. There is a parking lot at this preserve.

More information about the preserve is available on the Lancaster Conservancy’s website here.