Nature’s gifts: spring ephemerals
“Springtime flowers bloom like colorful arrows piercing their way to the sun” — Teri Guillemets
By SCOT STEWART
Special to the Journal
A walk through the woods in early spring just before or during the opening of the tree leaves above always offers surprises. American lady and mourning cloak butterflies flutter over the dried leaves. A blue-spotted salamander may still be making its way to a nearby pond to look for a mate and a chance to continue to the species. Small sprigs of green begin to peek through the rich smelling soil. And in a few spots, there is the splash of colored flowers.
The earliest of flowers in April and May are called ephemerals — meaning they last just a short time. The success of these flowers depends on their ability to find suitable insect partners, mostly bees, flies, wasps and ants, able to find and pollinate them before they are shrouded in the shadows of the trees. By the time most hikers get out for walks in these woods, the flowers have bloomed and set seed and the leaves have withered, done for the season. A few have colorful seeds or fruits and may still be easy to find, but most are all but gone, requiring a serious knowledge of habitat, past presence or the luck of seeing a late bloomer still present.
Maple, beach and aspen forests surrounding Laughing Whitefish Falls State Park and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore are two of the best hold some of the best of these early flowers. Hairy stemmed round and sharp-lobed hepaticas, with their evergreen leaves are among the first of these deep forest flowers to bloom. They are amazing plants because they color of their flowers is an amazing spectrum of hues from white to pink, to magenta, lavender and purple. Their hairy flower stems may discourage some animals from nibbling on the new growth.
Because these flowers have a gamble every spring, hoping to bloom and be pollinated after the insects emerge and before they get shaded out, most have bright colors. Besides white and the purple-to-pink of the hepatica, there are plenty of yellows. Trout lilies, small lilies with marbled brown and green leaves come in two species. A white one is found in only a few spots in the Upper Peninsula like the Sturgeon River Canyon of Houghton County. It is also found in Ontonagon County and most of the southern Lower Peninsula. The more common yellow trout lily is found in all but six Michigan Counties, including Iron County in the U.P. A third lily, the bellwort, is a taller plant, blooming later than the trout lilies with bright yellow flowers. It is found across the western U.P. and most of the Lower Peninsula.
White and yellow make up the two colors of one of the tallest spring flowers, the large-flowered trillium. Familiar to most residents of the central U.P. because of the large patches of white they often create they are common across great spans of Alger and Luce counties along U.S. 41 and M-28. The petals are pure white and the reproductive parts including the pollen are yellow. It has two similar U.P. relatives, the nodding trillium and the red trillium. The former has a single white flower that droop below the three leaves it has and often goes unnoticed. The red trillium is very similar to the large-flowered cousin except the flowers are deep magenta. It is only found in Alger County in the U.P. and in counties close to the Great Lakes in the L.P. What might confuse some it the large-flowered trillium’s petals of having the habit turning deep pink as they mature but are still far lighter and larger than the red trillium.
Two really interesting spring ephemerals are the Dutchman’s breeches and squirrel corn. Both have similar leafy growths and the flowers are grouped in bunches on long stems. Each takes the shape of their names with the Dutchman’s breeches yellow and white looking like pants hanging upside down. The squirrel corn flowers are a creamy white and looks like hominy kernels. Both are common across most of the state. A relative, the wild bleeding-heart, a magenta colored flower related to the two is found around Marquette, apparently an escape from some brought to the area from the east.
Bloodroot is a pure white flower, like a shining star on the forest floor, with leaves that do not appear until the flowers are nearly done blooming. The plant gets its name from the bright orange-red sap in the roots. It is found in all the U.P. except Gogebic County. Jack-in-the-pulpit is a most unusual flower, related to skunk cabbage, with green and brown striped flowers and column-like structure with the plants reproductive parts seated in the middle and are found in very moist soil often close to streams. They will produce bright red fruits visible later in the summer. A few other flowers like the toothworts, small flowered plants, may also appear with some of these forest flowers. Look quickly for these beauties — they won’t last long.