Secrets of the East Side: Murphy Lake

Murphy Lake in early summer, salvia and monarda blooming in a bed of perennials

Cut off from the rest of Forest Park by the MetroLink line and Grand Drive, hidden from sight by a sloping hill covered in giant shade trees, but bearing some of the most magnificent spring flowers, Murphy Lake is a seldom-seen jewel-within-a-jewel.

Approaching the lake during the height of spring bloom time can be overwhelming; the motley array of colors exploding out of the awakening landscape can be dizzying; the spice-market potpourri of floral fragrance, intoxicating. But for those who can bear the sensory overload and venture towards this tantalizing mirage shimmering in the distance, arriving at Murphy Lake can feel like that moment in The Wizard of Oz when black and white turns to Technicolor.

The snow has long melted, but the white carpet of spring beauties takes its place, offsetting the darker cool tone of the violets and the sunshine bursts of dandelions. The green grass barely has room to offer a backdrop. These colors warm the soul as much as the sun warms the winter chill from the bones. It takes a truly frozen heart to dismiss these as mere lawn weeds!

But this is just a small morsel to whet the appetite. Once you arrive at the eastern shoreline, the feast begins. Hellebore, witch hazel, snowdrops and crocus offer a first course, often appearing while the air still holds plenty of winter’s bite. Their colors signal the better days to come. And after that, the deluge: Fern fiddleheads start to appear, and an army of daffodils begin to march to their tune. Azaleas open in the cool shade of woodland gardens, daylilies in the sunnier margins, as an assortment of spring bulbs explode like fireworks. Korean spice viburnums bask in the sun, with huge lacy pom-poms of vanilla-scented wonder cheering on the opening buds of the trees and shrubs. A multitude of hydrangeas begin their pageant and bottlebrush buckeyes send their fine wispy flowers towering into the warm blue skies of May.

The serviceberries ripen and turn from their beautiful wine color to a dark purple, signaling that it’s time to start snacking before the birds beat you to them. Hailing from the same family as the apple and the cherry, they straddle the boundary between tree and shrub and bear fruit that tastes much like a blueberry, with a tiny almond-flavored seed inside. On the sunny southern shore, oak leaf hydrangeas release their fragrance as summer grows warm. The linden trees’ flowers begin to perfume the air; often hidden high in the canopy, offering only an unremarkable light yellow-green color, their scent is a sweet mystery to most people passing underneath.

Summer may not be as colorful as spring, but green is always welcome when it’s blocking the hot sun during midday. With such an abundance of large trees, Murphy Lake is one of the coolest spots in Forest Park and perhaps the finest spot for a secluded picnic for those looking to escape the crowds. Bring a blanket and lay down to watch the leaves above sway in the lazy warm breeze. Savor just how slowly a fine day can pass by as drivers whip past along Lindell, every one of them wishing they were you.

And as the weather cools again, red means stop. Admire the towering blackgum on the western shore, its glossy leaves blazing like a freshly painted fire engine. Compare them to the flames dancing on the branches of the nearby sourwood, a sight as sweet as a candy apple to the eye. The much-maligned sweetgum with its spiky gum balls glows in the sunshine like a kaleidoscope, and at least for a week or two all is forgiven. And don’t forget to revisit the serviceberries; their rich pumpkin-orange leaves are as delicious to gaze at as their fruits are to eat.  

But let’s stop before we go any further past autumn. It is spring, the air is growing warm, the nights are getting longer and winter is a long way away. 

Editor's Note: This blog series is penned by Forest Park Forever Gardener Susan Van de Riet and Horticulturist Mark Halpin, who together maintain 123 acres on the east side of Forest Park. To learn more about Susan, Mark and the rest of our talented Land Management team, please click here.