Nature Notes: Spring Ephemerals
Updated: Apr 28, 2022
May is a month of treasure hunts. I like to explore the outdoors with a specific treasure in mind. How many butterflies can I find today? How many turtles and frogs can I count down at the pond? How many bird nests can I see in our yard? My favorite treasures to find are the ephemerals – the earliest of our spring wildflowers. So where do you look to find these blossoms? First you have to know a couple of things about our flowers.
Our native trees typically bear the first flowers that we see in the spring. This is because most of our native trees 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. Tree flowers don’t always look like your “typical” flowers, so take a peek because their flowering period is coming to a close!
Quaking Aspen flowers – not a “typical” flower. 5/4/16
In our deciduous forests, shrubs and plants that grow in the understory or on the forest floor also need to flower early in the spring. They must grow quickly while they are flooded with vernal sunshine, before the trees above shade them out for the rest of the summer. Many of these plants are also wind pollinated, so again, they often bear rather small flowers. Plants that rely on pollinators typically have larger, showier flowers in order to attract pollinators to their nectar. Generally, plants that are farther south are often pollinated by insects or other animals, and plants that are farther north are often wind pollinated. One of the factors that affect 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 and plants remain dormant for longer, it makes sense for a plant to invest less time and energy into developing flowers. Flowers that grow in coniferous forests or in open grassland/prairie habitats will appear later in the season. Since conifers maintain their needles all year, soil beneath their branches remains relatively shady all year long, meaning there is no rush to get up a flower to catch early spring sun. Similarly with the prairie, they have relatively high amounts of sunshine all summer long, so again, there is no rush to produce a flower since there is no limit to sunlight.
So this is the time to get outside and find those early woodland flowers, before shade returns to our forest. Ephemeral literally means short-lived, so the time is now! Here are a few you might find, and a great resource for the ones you don’t see here! (Note: Click on images for a larger size. Please see “Parts of a Flower” for reference.)
This small 4-6″ flower is in the buttercup family, & is typically the first one I find in the spring. There are two very similar species: Round-lobed Hepatica & Sharp-lobed Hepatica. Basically, the only difference between them is the shape of their three-lobed leaves: one is round while the other is more pointed. Both have small, single flowers with 5-9 petals that can be lavender, white, pale blue, or pink. The leaves on these plants overwinter, allowing them to get a jump start on growth in the spring.
This 5-10″spring ephemeral is known as Bloodroot and it is one of our earliest flowering plants, emerging as soon as the soil thaws. It is a member of the poppy family & gets its name from the red-orange liquid found in its stems and roots, which has been used for insect repellent & as a dye. It is easily identifiable by a single, large, white flower with 8-10 petals around a golden center & a single, large, blueish-green, lobed leaf, which is wrapped around a pinkish stalk. They will be gone by the end of May!
These two flowers are both in the lily family and look very similar. Large-flowered Bellwort, left, is 10-20″ tall, has drooping, 1-2″ long, yellow bell-shaped flowers with 6 petals. Pale Bellwort, right, (aka Wild Oats or Sessile-leaved Bellwort) is smaller, reaching 6-12″, & has 1″ long pale yellow/cream bell-shaped flowers, also with 6 petals (actually, 3 petals & 3 petal-like sepals). Large-flowered Bellwort typically prefers more shade and moisture.
Minnesota has 4 kinds of trilliums, 2 of which I frequently encounter in our woods. The “tri” in trillium indicates 3 – 3 leaves, 3 petals, 3 sepals. The Large-flowered Trillium (left & center) is difficult to miss with a large, single white flower 2-4″ wide, & with 3 white, triangle-shaped wavy petals. This is a protected flower species – so do not pick it! The Nodding Trillium (right) has a very similar flower shape, but flowers are smaller, 1-1.5″, & hang below the whorl of 3 leaves.
Marsh Marigold (aka Cow Slip) is a fairly common spring plant in sun-filled wet areas, such as quiet waterways, streams, ponds, and flooded forest wetlands. Despite its name, this plant is not a true Marigold but rather a member of the buttercup family.
One of the more unique shaped flowers of our woods, the Jack-in-the-Pulpit is very easy to identify. Look for a greenish/purplish hood (spathe or “pulpit”) sitting on top of a single stalk. You’ll find a 2-3″ club (spadix or “jack) standing inside the protection of the hood. It has 3 large leaves that can be confused with Trillium leaves, but can be distinguished by a deep vein that runs around the edge of the leaf.
Minnesota has 18 different kinds of violets, all of which look remarkably similar. Typically, they all have small flowers (≥1″) with 5 petals. Often the bottom petal has dark “guidelines”, leading insects to the pollen and nectar at the center. The two petals on either side of that one are often “bearded” (have small hairs). Violets can be yellow, white, lavender, or pale blue.
If you find this flower, make sure to mark its location! This is Wild Strawberry & in a few weeks, you’ll want to come back to harvest the delicious red berries! This is a small plant, 3-6″, with 2-10 small (.75″) white flowers. Each flower has five, widely spaced, round petals around a yellow center. The 5 pointy green sepals form a star shape in between the petals. Each leaflet of the three-part basal leaf is about 1″ long & coarsely toothed. The leaves are on a separate stem from the flower and fruit.
At first sight, this plant may look similar to Wild Strawberry. Wood Anemone is slightly larger, 4-8″, and has a single white flower 1″ wide. It has five petal-like white (sometimes pink/purple) sepals, close enough they appear to touch. Beneath the flower is a set of whorled leaves, each about 1.25″ long & consisting of 3-5 coarse-toothed, pointed lobes. Wood Anemone reproduces along an underground rootstock (rhizome), so it quickly spreads to form large patches. You may see many plants that are not flowering, as it takes up to 5 years to reach flowering age.
This last one is a challenge. The male & female flowers of Early Meadow Rue are on separate plants. Both are small & can easily be overlooked, making this plant difficult to notice. Both flowers are about .24″ across with 4-5 light green sepals, found in clusters at the end of the stem. The female flowers have 10 thick white/green pistils. The male flowers have many hanging yellow stamen.
There are many more flowers to see this spring & summer. Check back here for more flowers later on in the season. For now, get outside! If you haven’t started already, it’s not too late to join in the 30×30 challenge! How many spring ephemerals can you find?!