Wild Side: Spring beauties in the woods
Winter has finally lost its grip. Spring peepers, toads and tree frogs are calling; turkeys are gobbling; orioles and warblers are back singing their spring songs.
The trees are flowering and just starting to leaf out.
It's a great time to be out in the woods. The visibility is good before all the undergrowth turns green.
In addition to the fast-moving bundles of color like Cape May warblers and indigo buntings, stars of the spring show are the ephemeral flowers. Spring ephemerals are plants of deciduous forests that are adapted to take advantage of the high-light period on the forest floor in early spring.
As soon as the snow melts they grow their leaves and stems, flower, bear fruit, produce new buds, store carbohydrates in their roots and then go senescent (dormant), all in a couple months.
Spring ephemerals also take advantage of the moist soil conditions in early spring after snowmelt and before the trees start pumping water from the soil out through their leaves. Nutrients in the forest soil are highest in the spring after the fallen leaves have undergone a winter of decomposition.
The spring ephemerals are the first plants to appear and flower in the leafless woods. The phenology (the seasonal occurrence of biological events) of spring ephemerals is predictable. First to appear after snowmelt in our area are rue anemonie, trout lilies, bloodroot and spring beauties. These plants unfurl their leaves in the early spring when the weather remains unpredictable. Being short plants, they are buffered from temperature extremes by the moist forest soil. Bloodroot has leaves that trap warm air around the flower.
As the sun warms the forest floor and after some rain, a rush of spring ephemeral species make their appearance. Hepaticas, trilliums, Dutchman's breeches, wild ginger, dogtooth violet, wild geranium, phlox, May apple, jack-in-the-pulpit, columbine and Solomon's seal are all out in May.
Many of the spring ephemerals are unusual looking. Dutchman's breeches have soft gray-green feathery foliage and small flowers that look like a white pair of pants hanging on a clothesline.
May apples (more common in southern Pierce County) have two umbrella-shaped leaves and a white flower growing from the "Y" of the stem.
Wild ginger has heart-shaped leaves over a brownish-purple flower with three points.
Hepaticas have fuzzy, three-lobed leaves with tiny pink blossoms.
Spring beauties have small white flowers with pink stripes on the petals.
Bloodroot has broadly lobed leaves and an eight-petal white flower with a yellow center. Their roots have blood-red sap that makes a lasting dye.
Jack-in-the-pulpit has one or two three-lobed leaves and a strange flower. The spadix (Jack) is covered with small male and female flowers. The spathe is Jack's pulpit with a green and purple striped canopy over it. Beware the Jack-in-the-pulpit! They contain calcium oxylate crystals that cause a powerful burning sensation if eaten.
A wonderful expedition this time of year is to go trout fishing, watch the colorful warblers eating insects along the stream and take in the spring ephemeral flower show. If you are lucky and observant you may find some morels and wild leeks (called "ramps" in Appalachia) to cook with the trout you catch.
I wonder if I can train my dog Badger to find morels for me while I daydream in the woods?
Please send any comments and suggestions for this column to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.