One of our earliest spring ephemerals, Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), a member of the Poppy family, greets the longer, warming days by having its short-lived flower emerge from within its protective leaf and spread its white petals wide open on sunny days. (The flower only opens on days when the temperature reaches 46 degrees, as that’s when pollinators are active.)
To encourage cross-pollination, when the flower opens it is in the female stage, relying on pollinators covered in pollen to land and drop pollen to the receptive stigma. Within a few hours of opening the stamens begin to release pollen. The flower will open for up to three days or until cross-pollination has occurred. Once pollination has taken place the flower begins to drop its petals.
Coltsfoot – a Dandelion look-alike, a harbinger of spring, and a medicinal as well as invasive plant. This early-blooming flower can quickly be distinguished from a Dandelion. Coltsfoot usually flowers and often goes to seed before its leaves appear (ignore young leaf in photo!), whereas a Dandelion’s rosette of leaves are apparent when the plant flowers. In addition, the flower stems of Coltsfoot are covered with woolly hairs and scaly bracts while Dandelion stems are smooth.
Coltsfoot, named for the shape of its leaves, is of Eurasian origin, but was introduced into North America as a medicinal plant over a century ago (for its expectorant properties). It has long since escaped culture and become a widespread weed, invasive in some cases, especially in clay and moist soils. A pioneer plant, Coltsfoot often appears in disturbed areas, and with its dense broad leaves it chokes out native plants. It’s a sun lover, though, and therefore tends to gradually disappear as trees and shrubs move in and create dense shade.
Red Trillium (Trillium erectum) has many common names, among them Stinking Benjamin, due to its unappealing smell. It has no nectar to attract insects, so it uses its scent and the color of its petals (which resembles rotting meat) to lure pollinating insects, the majority of which are carrion flies and beetles.
Apparently this strategy has not gone unnoticed by certain insect-eating predators, such as spiders. As you can see in this photograph, a spider has snared and is eating (drinking) a fly in the web it spun on top of the trillium’s pollen-laden stamens.
There are two white spring wildflowers that have nearly identical dissected leaves, are both suspended in multiple numbers from a single stalk, and have petals that form long spurs within which nectar is located. Their names are Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) and Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis). Although Dutchman’s Breeches usually flowers a week or so earlier than Squirrel Corn, they can both be found flowering now.
As their name implies, Dutchman’s Breeches flowers are shaped like tiny pantaloons hanging from a wash line. Squirrel Corn is a close relative of Dutchman’s Breeches. If you look closely you will see that Squirrel Corn flowers have no yellow “waistband” like Dutchman’s Breeches, and their spurs are more rounded, giving the flower more of a heart shape. Squirrel Corn is named for the yellow underground corms, or storage structures, on its roots which are shaped a bit like corn kernels, absent in Dutchman’s Breeches.
Purple Trillium, Large-flowered Trillium and Painted Trillium all flower in the month of May. Another name for trilliums is Trinity Flower, referring to the plant’s parts which are arranged in three’s or in multiple of threes. Three leaves, three sepals, three petals, six stamens, three stigmas and an ovary that has three compartments. (Photo: Purple Trillium, Trillium erectum)
Blue Cohosh, one of our early spring wildflowers, has diminutive flowers that open before its leaves fully expand. Like Wild Ginger, Blue Cohosh flowers are the color of rotting meat, which may account for the fact that flies are its main insect visitors. Flies tend to feed at a single flower until satiated, which is not conducive to cross-pollination, and thus most fertilization in Blue Cohosh is the result of self-pollination.
Native Americans treated a wide range of afflictions with Blue Cohosh, including gallstones, fevers, toothaches and rheumatism. The most common use of its rhizomes, or underground stems, was as an aid to speed and ease childbirth. Even today it still serves this purpose — 64% of midwives surveyed reported using Blue Cohosh to treat women before or during childbirth. It has, however, had deleterious effects on some women and has not been evaluated by the FDA.
Miterwort (Mitella diphylla), also called Bishop’s Cap, is named for the resemblance of its two-peaked fruits to the hats (known as miters) worn by bishops of the Roman Catholic Church. This spring wildflower produces miniature five-pointed snowflake flowers that beg to be examined with a hand lens.
Gnats, small bees and syrphid flies all seek out Miterwort for its nectar. Because its nectaries are located just below the stamens, the flower is pollinated by the mouthparts of the pollinators which brush against the stamens when collecting nectar and the inadvertently-gathered pollen is transported to other Miterworts. Predators such as the Goldenrod Crab Spider (pictured) know that potential meals are plentiful near these delicate flowers.
Flowers that have limited opportunity to attract pollinating insects, such as those that mature very early in the spring, often are self-fertile – they can produce seeds without the benefit of pollinators. Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) is a perfect example of this.
Wild Ginger has six inner stamens and six outer stamens, all of which produce pollen. In a newly-opened flower, all of these stamens lie flat against the “floor” of the flower. When the stamens are in this position, pollination is achieved by insects (often flies or beetles attracted to its rotten meat coloring and scent) as the pollen cannot reach the receptive stigma on its own. Wild Ginger hedges its bets, however. Whether or not pollination occurs early in its development, later in the life of the flower both inner and outer stamens move into an upright position, thereby moving closer to the stigma. Because the flower is oriented downward, this change in the position of the stamens allows for the pollen to fall onto the stigma, thereby accomplishing self-pollination. With or without pollinators, Wild Ginger succeeds in producing seeds.
How incongruous that a spring ephemeral as beautiful as Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) is extremely debilitating to any cow that eats it. The most common bovine symptom of poisoning by Dutchman’s Breeches is a staggering gait (it’s referred to as “staggerweed” by some farmers) and a decrease in milk production. However, according to the Veterinary Medicine Library at the University of Illinois, there are far more severe symptoms. “Experimental feeding of these plants to steers caused sudden trembling which increased in severity, frothing of the mouth, ejection of partially digested stomach contents, and convulsions. The eyes became glassy, and the animals went down and moaned as if in pain.” Certainly this is a plant one should admire and experience visually, not gastronomically.
As Skunk Cabbage grows, it absorbs oxygen, and this allows it to produce heat through a process known as thermogenesis. This heat is responsible for the fact that Skunk Cabbage is one of the earliest plants to flower in the spring.
Skunk Cabbage’s flower has two components – the flower-bearing, round spadix and the hood-like spathe that surrounds it. The spadix is able to maintain its temperature at about 68°F., creating a little warming hut inside the spathe for the few insects out this early in the spring. Fueled by the reserved starch in the plant’s underground rhizome, the spadix is able to exceed the temperature outside the spathe by as much as 77°F. for a period of two to three weeks. The combination of the heat produced and the dark, heat-absorbing spathe can cause the snow around the plant to melt. If the ambient temperature drops below 37.4°F., the plant can shut down the heating mechanism until the air temperature rises again. (Thanks to Sadie Brown for photo op.)
After the spathe (hood) dies back, Jack-in-the-pulpit fruit is more obvious, especially as the green berries turn brilliant reddish-orange at this time of year. Eventually the stem withers and the seed head falls to the ground. The tissues of Jack-in-the-pulpit, particularly the roots, contain high toxic levels of oxalic acid. The berries, if eaten, cause a burning sensation in the mouth and throat due to physical cuts caused by the crystals of calcium oxalate. Although cattle, goats, pigs and sheep are susceptible to the toxin, white-tailed deer, wild turkeys and wood thrushes appear to consume them without distress. As is obvious from this photograph, though, the berries are not in high demand.
Miterwort, also known as Bishop’s–cap, is named for the resemblance of its fruits to the hats (known as miters) worn by bishops of the Roman Catholic Church. If you examine a flower closely, you will see its delicate, 5-pointed, snowflake-like beauty. Each flower is in the shape of a tiny cup, with dissected petals arising from the rim of the cup, resembling fine lacework. There is a glandular ring of nectar-producing tissue inside the cup which attracts small bees, flies and ants. Once pollinated, the flowers produce open seed-containing capsules. Water, not animals, is the dispersal agent for Miterwort’s seeds. The capsules orient themselves so that their opening faces upward. When it rains, the falling rain drops splash the seeds out of the capsules, dispersing them up to three feet away from the parent plant. The distance traveled by the seeds is dependent upon both the size of the raindrop and the distance that it has fallen before landing in a capsule.
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), utilizes contrasting white (petals) and yellow (pollen-bearing stamens) colors to attract insects and achieve pollination. The blossoms have no nectar, only pollen, and in order to protect the pollen, the petals of this member of the Poppy family close on overcast days and nights, a time when most pollinators are inactive. The reopening of the flowers depends on temperature and cloud cover. If it’s sunny out, the flowers will open when the temperature reaches 47°F. Native bees, which are Bloodroot’s main pollinators, don’t usually fly until it is 55°F., so flies, capable of flying at slightly lower temperatures, do most of the cool weather pollinating.
Even though they are not rare and they are not especially known for their beauty, the dandelion-like flowers of Coltsfoot beckon like no others. To humans, the brilliant yellow petals of this member of the Aster family are a bright beacon in the relatively drab brown world revealed after the snow melts. But they are an even more compelling sight for bees at this time of year, for these flowers are a very early source of nectar in the spring, when there are few other wildflowers blooming.
When black bears first emerge from hibernation, they survive mainly on emerging green vegetation in wetlands. As the season progresses, there are more and more food options to choose from, including a favorite – the corm, or underground bulb-like storage structure, of Jack-in-the-Pulpit. Even though they are large, somewhat lumbering creatures, black bears dig up and remove these corms as if they had a tiny tool designed just for this purpose. They barely disturb the earth, leaving only very small holes as evidence of their presence. A friend of mine witnessed this just outside his window one spring day, and could not believe the delicacy with which the bear extracted these morsels of food from the ground. Apparently the calcium oxalate crystals in Jack-in-the-Pulpit that cause the burning sensation in human mouths doesn’t affect bears, at least not enough to protect the plant.
Early saxifrage (Micranthes virginiensis) is well named – it flowers early in the spring, and is often found growing in or on rocks. (The name saxifrage derives from the Latin words “saxum” meaning rock and “frangere,” to break. When the small seeds of saxifrage lodge in rock crevices and germinate, the plant looks as though it split the rock.) If you look closely you’ll see that early saxifrage’s flower stalk has many hairs – they are glandular and their stickiness is thought to deter ants from taking nectar from the flowers, so that it can attract more efficient pollinators.
Even in the rain, Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum) can brighten one’s day. Its species name, “undulatum” aptly describes its wavy-margined petals and its common name reflects the splash of pink in the center of the white flower. This member of the Lily family likes acid woods and bogs. Look for it in mature, second-growth forests of Red Maple, Paper Birch, Eastern Hemlock and Eastern White Pine. Wildflowers likely to be found where Painted Trillium grows include Starflower, Sarsaparilla, Canada Mayflower, Indian Cucumber-root, Partridgeberry and Goldthread.
If you find a blossoming Trout Lily in the woods it is quite likely that you will also find one of its most common pollinators, the Red-necked False Blister Beetle (Asclera ruficollis), on it. Ardent pollen eaters, this group of beetles obtain their common name because many species cause blisters when pinched or squashed against skin. Adults mate on flower heads during pollen feeding. Both sexes feed on pollen, which acts as an attractant, but the female will not accept the male until her gut is packed full of pollen. She stores the pollen in a special intestinal sack in which an enzyme causes the pollen to partially germinate — this causes the indigestible covering of the pollen grain to rupture. She then digests the contents of the pollen grain, which she uses to manufacture eggs.
Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) is one of our earliest woodland wildflowers to blossom, and thus an important source of nectar and pollen for the earliest foraging insects. Pink lines (“bee guides”) on each of its five petals lead pollinators to the center of the flower, where the nectar is located. The pollinator in this image, Andrena erigeniae, is one of the more common species of bees that visits Spring Beauty in the early spring. Notice the slightly pink pollen she has gathered into the pollen basket on her hind leg. If you’re interested in spending time observing the series of different insect pollinators that visit Spring Beauty as the season progresses, there’s a golden opportunity for you. If you go to http://springbeauties.wordpress.com/ you can participate as a citizen scientist volunteer and participate in their survey.
Marsh Marigold’s (Caltha palustris) common name is partially accurate – it does grow in marshes, but it is not closely related to marigolds. It is also known as Cowslip, a name which is also misleading, as it doesn’t refer to cows losing their footing when walking on this plant. According to The Secrets of Wildflowers by Jack Sanders, the word literally means “cow slop,” or cow dung, as both the English cowslip, for which it was named, as well as cow paddies were found in the same pastures. People used to believe that butter derived its yellow coloring from the Cowslip flowers that cows ate. In fact, like many other plants in the Buttercup family, it contains irritants that cause most grazers, including cows, to avoid the plant. Humans do eat the young leaves, but boil them several times to rid them of acrid irritants that could be poisonous.
All members of the Poppy family have milky or colored sap, and Bloodroot (Sanguinarea canadensis) is no exception. Its sap is as red as its petals are white, and was used as a source of dye by Native Americans (for clothing and baskets) as well as for paint and as an insect repellent. The individual flower of Bloodroot lasts only two days, but on these two days, it reigns supreme amongst the early ephemerals.