Signs of Spring 11: Wildflowers on the Nature Trail

Deborah went out on a Nature Trail walk this week while I was giving (and grading) some finals. She spotted (our) first Baltimore orioles of the spring (two males fighting for mating territory along the Spicebush Trail up along the stream). She also saw a number of wildflowers along the trail and has classified them as “plants everyone should notice” and “plants that only biologists are likely to notice.” I have added some discussion about some of the plants. It’s worth taking the short walk out to the trail to see them! The plant names with *, by the way, link to species pages on our Virtual Nature Trail if you would like to read more about them!

Plants that everyone should notice:

Yellow violet flower and leaves

Image credit: D. Sillman

Violets!  Mainly purple and yellow violets – These are the most obvious flowers along the Nature Trail right now. There are many species of violets out in our woods and they range in color from a deep blue-violet to pure white. Left alone violets spread through their shady, moist soil habitats via rhizomes and seeds and can even cross the line from wildflower to weed if they invade flower beds, lawns, or agricultural fields. Their heart shaped flowers are waxy and resistant to many herbicides which make their control as weeds quite difficult. The leaves of violets are used as food by a number of moth and butterfly species. There is an ongoing discussion about the scent of violet flowers. Some maintain that the flowers have no smell while others describe a sweet, powdery scent that seems to come and go. The chemistry behind these observations centers on a ketone called “ionone” that is a major component of the violet flower’s chemical signature. Ionone actually smells initially sweet but then desensitizes your olfactory receptors thus blocking your sense of smell. It takes a couple of seconds for the receptor to recover and then the scent of the violet flower seems to return! Try it!

*Garlic mustard – unfortunately abundant and in full bloom out on the trail! This European, alien invasive species was introduced to North America in 1860. Its use as flavoring herb for food led people to grow it in herbal gardens, but it rapidly escaped cultivation and has spread throughout forest and field habitats in the Northeastern and Midwestern United States and Canada. A single plant can produce up to 8000 seeds, so its potential growth rate spread is enormous. Garlic mustard also produces a rich array of allelopathic chemicals which inhibit the growth of other plants and can even kill the mycorrhizal fungi on which these plants depend for their nutrient acquisition. A final feature of this plant that accelerates its invasion of our ecosystems is that white-tailed deer tend not to eat it! So while almost every other plant in our woods is passing though the digestive tract of deer, the garlic mustard continues to grow, flower and produce its prodigious number of seed!

Mayapple plant with flower bud circled

Image credit: D. Sillman

Mayapple – its distinctive “umbrella” leaves are abundant throughout our woods!.  Flower buds have formed under the leaves (circled on image) and we predict beautiful flowers in about a week. This distinctive “parasol” plant has thick, shiny green leaves and will form a partially hidden, nodding white flower. This perennial plant grows from expanding rhizomes and often forms large, interconnected patches of dozens to hundreds of genetically identical plants. Mayapple relies on soil fungi (mycorrhizae) to assist their uptake of soil nutrients. Competition with plants that inhibit these soil fungi (like garlic mustard) can be very harmful to mayapple. Reproduction in mayapple is via both vegetative growth (the expanding rhizomes) and via sexual reproduction (flowers that form fruit after pollination). There is a steep physiological cost involved in making flowers and fruit, and this cost can significantly drain the energy reserves from the colonial rhizome. This energy loss may even be sufficient to kill the large, clonal colony. Dispersal, though, of the species via the fruit, and the genetic mixing and variation that arises from sexual reproduction are advantages well paid for by this stress.

Spring beauty flower

Image credit: D. Sillman

Spring beauty – almost done!  Delicate white flowers, but you’ll need to look carefully! Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), in addition to being a very reliable “sign of spring,” is also edible from its root and thumb-sized, underground corm to its green, leafy stem! A number of references describing both food uses by Native Americans and European explorers and settlers include spring beauty (especially its carbohydrate rich corm) as an important food item. It would seem a shame to pull up and destroy such a delicate flowering plant for such a tiny meal, but if you were really hungry I suppose beauty must yield to calories.

And briefly:

Three flowers

Image credit: D. Sillman

Wild geranium – beautiful purple flowers!
*Red Trillium – gorgeous, but you might miss it if you don’t know where it is!
*Jack-in-the-Pulpit – a wonderful wildflower that is fairly abundant on the trail, but it’s green color makes it really easy to walk right by it and not see the flowering parts!
*False Solomon’s Seal – not blooming quite yet, but very distinctive and beautiful leaves
Rue anemone – also delicate white flowers, only in one place on the spicebush trail.  Worth hunting for!
Cut-leaved toothwort – also mostly done flowering, but a few are persisting

Plants that only biologists are likely to notice:

Chickweed – Chickweed grows especially well in damp, cool habitats, but it can tolerate and even thrive in a very broad range of moisture and temperature conditions. It is a native of Europe that has spread almost everywhere that Europeans have colonized (or maybe just even visited!). It is a cold tolerant annual that can, in areas with mild winters, persist all the way through the winter season. It grows in high latitudes (up close to the Arctic Circle) and at high altitudes. Its stems hang limply over the ground and are covered with small (1/3”), paired, oval leaves that open during the day and close at night. Rising over the greenery of the stems and leaves are tiny (1/2” across) white flowers whose five petals are so deeply divided that they look ten-pointed stars. Each flower only lives for one day and is capable of self-pollination (a very useful feature in a flower that opens weeks before most insects are stirring!). Chickweed, though, flowers almost continuously throughout its growing season and can on milder days be cross-pollinated by several species of flies. A single plant can make 2500 to 15,000 seeds! These seeds can germinate in the warming spring soils or persist in the soil systems for up to ten years without losing their viability. The seeds are eaten by many species of game and song birds, and the leaves are consumed by a wide range of mammals. Humans eat chickweed seeds and leaves, too, and brew plant parts into a variety of medicinal teas and poultices.

Purple dead nettle – this is another alien invasive plant that is widespread throughout our woods, fields, and lawns. It is also on a short list of plants hated by Carl Meyerhuber! Patches of purple dead nettle (called “dead” because it does not make the “stinging” chemical of its fellow nettle species) and ground ivy form ideal habitats for many small animals. In the past we have seen quite a few American toads and garter snakes hiding out under the protective cover of the dead nettle leaves.

And briefly:

Ground ivy (or as we prefer to call it, Gill-over-the-Ground) – small irregular purple blue flowers, ubiquitous!
False mermaid – looks like a weedy groundcover, but makes tiny white flowers – no one will notice this.
Yellow corydalis – small irregular yellow flowers, common
Small flowered crowfoot – small easy to miss flowers

Spring is racing into summer! Hang on!

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1 Response to Signs of Spring 11: Wildflowers on the Nature Trail

  1. Patrick Kopnicky says:

    Our Baltimore oriel arrived this morning and an indigo bunting came yesterday.
    Love spring!

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