Jeff Green | Apr 17, 2008
Outdoors - April 17, 2008
Back toHomeOutdoors in the LandO'Lakes - April 17, 2008 Wildflowers in a Hurry – Spring Ephemerals Outdoors in the Land O'Lakes byBy Steve Blight
Even this year, the snow is disappearing and the ground is beginning to warm up. Among the first wildflowers to burst from the forest floor in spring is a group of plants known as “spring ephemerals”. While they are generally not closely related, they share one very important feature – these plants are in a major hurry. Their strategy is to make as much use as possible of the direct sunlight streaming through the leafless trees in early spring to do all of their flowering, seed production and growth for the year.
Once the trees have completely leafed out by mid-May and starve them of light, many of these plants wither and return to their dormant stage underground, waiting for the warmth of the following spring to go through the cycle again – much like tulips. The more common spring plants in this category include trout lilies, Dutchman’s breeches (at left), wild leeks and spring beauties. While trilliums and bloodroots are also early spring wildflowers, they often keep their leaves until the forest floor dries out in mid-summer. Hepaticas are another very early blooming wildflower that keeps their leaves right through the winter.
Trout Lilies are also called dogtooth violets or adder’s tongues. Unlike birds, which have common names that are as reliable as their Latin–based scientific name, plants often have a number of common names that can lead to confusion. The mottled green and maroon leaves of trout lilies are said to be reminiscent of a trout – not any trout that I have seen, but this has not stopped trout lilies from becoming the generally accepted common name for these colonial plants. As you walk through the woods on a spring day, you may find a patch of hundreds of trout lily leaves with only a few showing their characteristic backward curved yellow flower with dark brown anthers. I once estimated the number of trout lilies on our 2.5 acre cottage property and came up with the astounding figure of a little over one million plants! By the end of May, you might not find even a trace of these plants.
Dutchman’s breeches are small plants related to the common garden plant Bleeding Heart. Their flowers remind people of pairs of old-fashioned white knickers hanging on a clothesline – hence their common name. It is very closely related to another plant native to our neck of the woods, called squirrel corn. Both species have tender, feathery foliage in a shade of dusty gray-green, almost as delicate and enchanting as the translucent flowers. All of these plants are members of the poppy family. Brush the leaves gently against your hand for a lovely sensation of softness. As true ephemerals, these plants completely disappear above ground by the end of May.
Wild leeks, also called “ramps” or wild garlic in some areas, are a member of the onion family that are widely collected for food. This practice has severely reduced their numbers in many places. In Quebec, they are officially recognized as an endangered species, and a law designed to strictly control their harvest has been put in place. Nevertheless, every year poachers are caught with garbage bags full of illegally harvested wild leeks. One way to enjoy the taste of wild leeks without taking the whole plant is to just cut a single leaf from several different plants. In my experience, wild leeks are more likely to be found in areas with soils containing higher amounts calcium, often in areas of limestone or marble bedrock. These plants are ephemerals with a twist – while the leaves wither and disappear in May, they send up a stem with a single ball-like flower that blooms in early summer. Their shiny black seeds can persist on the dried stalks well into the following winter.
Spring Beauties are delicate forest plants that have gorgeous pinkish-white flowers with deeper pink veins. The 1-2 centimetre (about inch) flowers bloom in loose clusters at the ends of short stems. There are two species of spring beauties in Ontario – Virginia spring beauties with long narrow leaves, and Carolina spring beauties, which have shorter, more oval leaves. I have only found the Virginia spring beauty in our area, although I suspect the Carolina species is out there somewhere, waiting to be discovered. Sometimes, huge numbers of spring beauties bloom at the same time, spreading a breathtaking pinkish carpet on the forest floor, only to completely disappear by the end of May. It just so happens that the peak of the spring beauty blooming period coincides almost exactly with the peak of the black fly season in our area!