Shenk’s Ferry Wildflower Preserve

Pennsylvania Power & Light Company


Michelle and I went to Shenk’s Ferry Wildflower Preserve, which is a 60-acre natural area belonging to the Pennsylvania Power & Light Company.  The preserve is a forested, rocky stream valley discharging to the Susquehanna River, north of Pequea Creek.  Located in Lancaster County, this is Amish Country, so watch for horse and buggy along the roads.

The last two miles to the park trail head is a washed-out dirt road, not at all suited for Japanese sedans.  The preserve is considered one of the best possible day trips for spring ephemeral wildflowers, and is famous for literally hundreds of thousands of trilliums.

There is no need to leave the benched trail, which is about a mile long.  Otherwise you are on very steep and vulnerable slopes, which are absolutely covered in wildflowers.  Be patient, it will take hours to walk the mile, as you constantly stop for wildflowers of all kinds at face level, as you are looking at the slopes.  The constant sounds of waterfalls and rapids are delightful.

First-up were large aggregates of white trout lily (Erythronium albidum), a state rare plant of both Pennsylvania and Maryland.


The white trout lilies were just opening and will probably be at full bloom in a few days yet, as flower petals begin to turn back allowing for pollination.


Mixed with, but in separate aggregates, were the more common yellow trout lily (Erythronium americanum) at peak bloom.


The yellow trout lily occur down-slope along the stream, whereas the white are oriented along the mid and upper, drier slopes.


Wild ginger (Asarum canadense) was in bloom but hard to find, as the flowers grow under the foliage. I had to lay down on the ground to get this perspective.


An overview photo of Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) at peak bloom along the trail. The bluebells were the aspect dominant plant along with trilliums.  Aspect dominance means “what seems most apparent during your site visit.”  This will change from April through May as highly ephemeral (seasonal or short-lived) wildflowers will put on their show.

The term “phenology” means specific periods when wildflowers emerge, leaf-out, flower, go to seed, and wither away.  You almost need to walk the trail once a week for two to three months to see the big show, and all that this stream valley has to offer.


Early saxifrage (Saxifraga virginiensis) was observed growing on many rock outcrops along the trail.  The word saxifrage means “rock breaker.”


Puttyroot (Aplectrum hyemale) is a native orchid.  A single leaf emerges in the autumn and is semi-evergreen.  The leaf dies out in April and the orchid flower stalk emerges in May.   By June the plant has gone to seed and nothing remains until a leaf re-emerges toward late summer and early autumn.  How unique.


This is what Shenk’s Ferry is famous for, the Erect Trillium (Trillium erectum variation album), by the thousands!


The erect trillium is called as such because of the erect flower above the leaves.  The derivative of trillium is three, as the leaves and petals are in threes.  The plant is also commonly known as wake robin.


This flower is usually observed as being red.  This valley has a variant (v.) however, which is white and quite uncommon.  I’d say that we nailed it this weekend, for peak bloom.


This overview is the dominant scene, a literal profusion of wildflower color and species, throughout the entire valley.


Twinleaf Miterwort (Mitella diphylla), a demure wildflower, easy to overlook. Once observed, I swapped out my Nikkor 18-300mm all-purpose telephoto and put on my Nikkor Micro 85mm, as the next photo explains why.


The super tiny miterwort flowers look like snowflakes. How cool is that!


Wild Blue Phlox (Phlox divaricata) was just beginning to bloom, and from the looks of it, it was everywhere.


This is a photo of Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictrodes).  We observed numerous aggregates, many beginning to flower, a green/yellow flower easy to overlook.  Emerging out of the ground the cohosh appears as nearly black/blue stalks.


We walked along a section of stream with significant rock outcrops and spring seeps. The air temperature went from the mid 70’s, down to the low 60’s, as an inversion of cold air matched the groundwater discharge temperature.  Looking along the rocks I noticed smooth rock cress (Boechera laevigata).  The plant was developing its flower head, which should drape out of the top of the plant in the next few weeks.


Wood Elf v. Mark


Wood Nymph v. Michelle


Other than some occasional ruderals and garlic mustard, we were hard pressed to see any non-native invasive plants.  The exception was Star-of-Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum), which is an attractive Eurasian species.


Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) was common along the rock palisades of the Susquehanna.  This plant won’t be at peak for another week or two yet and was mixed with rock saxifrage, chickweeds and bluebells.


Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is at peak in Lancaster County, but is spent in central Maryland, suggesting that the Shenk’s Ferry area is at least a week behind similar flowering plant observations for Howard County, Maryland, where I live.


Shenk’s Ferry has high quality habitat allowing for an extreme and atypical profusion of highly concentrated numbers of native wildflowers.  I’m glad the area has high hunting pressure to keep browsing deer in check!

I kept a mental list of species observed which included columbine, bloodroot, chickweed, cleavers, Dutchman’s breeches, squirrel corn, yellow corydalis, early saxifrage, mayapple, sweet cicely, erect trillium, Virginia waterleaf, blue cohosh, false Solomon seal, jack-in-the-pulpit, skunk cabbage, wood nettle, cutleaf toothwort, wild geranium, spring beauty, smooth yellow, white, confederate and blue violet, golden ragwort, puttyroot, wild ginger, daylily, jewelweed, Virginia bluebells, wild blue phlox, showy orchid, carrion flower, miterwort, trout lily, bee balm and several others.

I’m sure that if I went again in mid to late May, I could significantly add to the list.  Great day trip!