Ephemeral Spring Flowers

spring beauty spring beauty Dutchman's breeches Dutchman's breeches hepatica hepatica trout lily trout lily

In early spring tiny woodland wildflowers burst into bloom beneath trees still bare of leaves. They take advantage of this brief window of opportunity, when sunlight penetrates deep into the woods. These are the first native flowers to bloom, but are often overlooked due to their forest habitat. Their time is short: they will be shaded out in just a couple of weeks or so. If you miss them at this time, you won’t be able to see them again until next year. Woodland wildflowers may provide pollen and nectar for the earliest insects to emerge, but mostly these plants are wind pollinated. The open forest floor is swept by warm spring breezes, sending pollen far and wide.

All plant and animal life stages are synchronized. Each species has evolved to thrive in specific conditions. So each has a slot in the annual cycle which they share with others adapted to the same conditions. I think of these clusters of species sharing the same time slot as season mates. Because there are only a few species of woodland wildflowers, they are easy to identify. Once the growing season gains momentum the profusion of overlapping activity cycles can be confusing.

Phenology (the study of timing in nature) makes the shifting activities of plants and wildlife relatively predictable. Erratic weather patterns and differences in elevation and exposure to sun and wind require adjustments on the local level. However, since plants and animals change in a synchronized pattern, it’s possible to track them as a group. Using a common and conspicuous flower to signal the presence of other, less noticeable, ones is a tactic widely used by botanists and ecologists. These plants are called indicator species. The plant lists for each Season in the book highlight several indicator species prominent in that season. When you start seeing these, most of the others will be making their appearance as well.

Flowers that bloom from early through late spring are a great place to start because they stand out in that before-summer landscape. Check the plant lists in the book and pair up flowers you know well with names of those you don’t. For example, when you see indicator species such as daffodils, hyacinth or red maple in bloom, it’s the right time to look for rue-anemone. When the equally iconic magnolia, sugar maple and cultivated cherries are blooming, it’s time to look for ragwort.

Field Guide to the Seasons tells you what plants and animals are doing throughout the year. Download the book to your iPad, iPod or iPhone – you can take it with you wherever you go. See direct link to iTunes on the Home Page.