The rain that we have long been waiting for finally came over the last two weeks. The rain brought a flood of color back to our landscape, including the spring ephemerals – the earliest of our spring wildflowers. So where do you look to find these blossoms? First, you have to know a couple things about Minnesota plants.
If you think about our environment, our native trees typically bear the first flowers we see in spring. This is because most of them are wind pollinated, so their flowers must emerge before their leaves, otherwise the leaves would get in the way of the wind moving the pollen around. By the time our forests are fully leafed out, the majority of our tree's flowers are gone. We are well on our way to full leaf out, but a few trees are still hanging onto their flowers.
Red-berried Elder, like many other shrubs and trees, have wind pollinated flowers which are typically smaller than insect pollinated flowers. (5/9)
In our deciduous forests, shrubs and plants that grow in the understory or on the forest floor also need to flower early in the season. While they are flooded with vernal sunshine, they do some quick growing before the trees above shade them out for the rest of the summer. Many of these plants are also wind pollinated, so they often have rather small flowers. Plants that rely on pollinators typically have larger, showier flowers in order to attract pollinators to their nectar. Generally, plants that occur farther south are often pollinated by insects or other animals, and plants that occur farther north are often wind pollinated. One of the factors that effects this is the length of the growing season. It takes much more energy to develop a large, showy flower. So here in the north, where our growing season is shorter, plants remain dormant for longer, and some plants have a very short time frame to grow before the sun becomes limited, investing less time and energy into developing a flower is a more efficient way to use resources.
Coniferous habitats provide a relatively stable (although low) amount of sunshine since the trees maintain their needles all year. Similarly, prairie habitats also provide a relatively stable (but high) amount of sunshine. Without the rush to soak up all the sun while they can, plants in these habitats typically flower later in the summer. This allows plants more time to produce a larger flower for pollinators, if that is their strategy.
I spent all of last weekend hunting for some spring flowers and here is what I found in our deciduous woodlands:
Bloodroot gets its name from the reddish fluid excreted from broken/cut rhizomes. The leaf wraps around the plant like a blanket to help keep it insulated in the cold of early spring. It will soon be done flowering! (5/9)
Large-flowered Bellwort (left) is taller and a deeper yellow color than Wild Oats (right), also called Sessile-leaved Bellwort or Pale-flowered Bellwort. These are the only two species of Bellwort in Minnesota. These plants were once thought to cure sore throats because their droopy flowers look similar to part of our throat - the uvula. (5/9)
When looking for Trilliums, look for plants with sets of three: three leaves and three petals (hence the "tri"). You may find a Large-flowered Trillium (left) or a Nodding Trillium (right). (5/8 & 5/12)
Marsh Marigold (left) is in full bloom in wooded swampy areas, while False Lily-of-the-Valley, or Canadian Mayflower (right), has buds that are about to break. (5/9)
Wood Anemone (or Mayflower) is a common sighting in early spring. It may take this plant up to five years to reach flowering age, at which time its flowers are typically white, but can be pink. (5/8)
Look for the unmistakeable Jack-in-the-Pulpit (left) and Early Meadow Rue (right) as you stroll through deciduous forests. The male and female flowers of Early Meadow Rue form on separate plants. (5/8)
Minnesota is home to many kinds of violets that are often difficult to distinguish from one another. Now's a good time to practice! Top: Downy Yellow Violet and Dog Violet; Bottom: Common Blue Violet and Kidney-leaved Violet (5/9)
With some looking, you many find Dwarf Ginseng (left) on nutrient rich soils of deciduous forests or Aborted Buttercup (right), whose underdeveloped flowers consist of tiny petals and lack any nectar. (5/9)
I also found some Wild Ginger (left) and the first Blueberry flowers (right)! We will need even more rain to have a good blueberry season this year. (5/9 & 5/13)
There are other plants in the woods worth noting as well, despite their lack of flowers. The plants below reproduce using spores, so they lack any flower or seed structures.
Keep an eye out for the abundant horsetails scattered on the landscape. There are field horsetails (above; left - fertile stem, right - sterile stem), as well as meadow, forest, and water horsetails.
Many kinds of ferns are beginning to pop, so look for "fiddleheads"! Ostrich, Bracken, Lady, and Interrupted Ferns are all sending up new fronds. (5/9)
So get outside this weekend and enjoy the spring ephemerals before they are gone! Ephemeral literally means "lasting for a very short amount of time". Embrace the rain this weekend (since it is bringing us quite a show) and journey out to see these flowers before they're gone! Enjoy!