Spring is wildflower season in mid-Missouri’s many woodlands. Already, dozens of species have bloomed and are going to seed, but there’s still time to catch some of the show, if you know where to look. If you don't, then you need Randal Clark, who has been guiding people through Missouri's spring wildflowers for close to 40 years.
On a recent Thursday evening at the Devil's Icebox parking lot at Rock Bridge State Park, Clark was getting ready to do exactly that.
After a brief introduction, Clark lead the group across the lot to the stone foundation of a building that once stood on the site – stopping to admire and identify each new wildflower along the way. "We have another beautiful native wildflower that’s blooming here that’s really beautiful – blue one," Clark pointed out. "That’s called the wild sweet William, is the name of that," he explained.
Clark's weekly Wildflowers Walk is now in its 36th year.
"It started out as a hike that I was going to do once for one of the outdoor groups that I belonged to, and then people loved it so much that I just kept doing it and the rest is kind of history," Clark said.
Each week, from late March through mid-May, Clark guides groups through the different wildflowers in bloom. Many spring wildflowers are ephemeral – blooming for as little as a day or two before going to seed. That’s where Clark’s extensive knowledge comes in handy.
Katherine Mouton, a frequent attendee of the walks said, "Oh, Randal’s a treasure, I mean he knows such interesting things about the plants." Mouton has been on every walk so far this year. "He tells you something different than you get out of a book or looking online, he tells a story," she added.
Clark's extensive knowledge of Missouri's woodland wildflowers is tied to his upbringing. "I grew up in the Ozarks and I learned this, my grandmother was a midwife and herb doctor. When I was young, she would take me out in the woods and show me the medicinal and edible uses of all the plants," Clark explained.
Throughout the walk Clark can identify which flowers have edible parts – like the diminutive spring beauty or wild blue violet - and which are toxic – which a lot of them are. "A number of our spring wildflowers are toxic because if you’re one of the first green things that pops up in the spring, it’s probably to your advantage to make someone sick," Clark said.
And Clark knows a little about toxicity. In his professional life, he’s a chemist for the U.S. Geological Survey, studying water pollution. After more than 30 years of teaching people about wildflowers, he still considers it a hobby.
In that time, Clark’s seen the park itself change. He notes that when he started guiding groups along the Spring Brook trail, it was mostly still grass with a couple trees. Now the trail is heavily timbered, and the ground is littered with the wildflowers that have repopulated area. Over the years he’s also accumulated followers, and if you go every week, you’re liable to see the same faces
If you’re interested in joining the next walk, all you have to do is show up Thursday to the Devil’s Icebox parking lot at 5:30 – the walks run through May 18.