For the Gazette
Ah, spring is in the air: lengthening days, mild breezes, bees a-buzz. To me, the most wonderful aspect of this season is the green-up, when nature throws off its brown and gray cloak and becomes awash in color. Much of this exuberant celebration takes place on the forest floor, where herbaceous plants bloom in profusion.
These plants are called “spring ephemerals” because they are truly transitory, thrusting up from the ground, quickly putting out their first leaves, and flowering within the space of a few, fleeting weeks. By early June, they’re done, just as the trees leaf out and darken the forest floor.
Spring ephemerals are taking advantage of the brief window before they are shaded by the tree canopy, when shafts of sunlight can still penetrate all the way to the soil and warm it up. These plants are not very tolerant of shade, so they must complete most of their hurried life cycle before the dark closes in.
They’re also taking advantage of nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, which become available as snowmelt and spring rains release these crucial substances from the soil in which they’ve been bound up all winter. Without the abundance of eager, hungry plants to take them up, these nutrients might otherwise leach away during April showers.
Instead, spring ephemerals perform a role that ecologists call a “vernal dam,” tying up nutrients during their brief day in the sun, then slowly releasing them back into the soil as their leaves and flowers die back. Thus, spring ephemerals — even diminutive as they are, compared to trees — are vital players in the cycling and retention of nutrients in forests.
Spring ephemerals are also among our showiest flowers, and no wonder. They’re trying to attract a host of sleepy pollinators that have just woken up from their winter slumber. Lumbering bumble-bee queens, wandering the forest floor in search of nesting sites, visit the nectar-rich flowers.
Iridescent Halictid bees and early-emerging flies also help to pollinate these plants. Some carrion-flies, for example, are attracted to the fetid-smelling purplish flowers of the otherwise gorgeous red trillium (Trillium erectum, aka “stinking Benjamin”), one of our most flamboyant spring bloomers.
A related ephemeral, called painted trillium (Trillium undulatum), displays beautiful white flowers with splashes of maroon that guide pollinators to the center of the flower. These “nectar guides” are patterns that shout to pollinators, “Over here! A little to the left!” and entice them toward the flower’s reproductive parts. That way, the flower can shower foraging bees with pollen that they’ll be sure to carry on to the next painted trillium.
Similarly, Carolina spring-beauty (Claytonia caroliniana) has flowers with delicate pink pin-stripes that lure insects in.
Blood-root (Sanguinaria canadensis) also has flashy, white, daisy-like flowers that contrast with their demure, lobed leaves that, when the plant first blooms, are folded modestly around the stem. This is no daisy, though; it is a member of the poppy family. It’s called “blood-root” because its roots ooze an orange-red sap containing semi-toxic alkaloids that can help cure chronic coughs and other maladies.
Dutchman’s-breeches and squirrel corn (members of the genus Dicentra), are also members of the poppy family, exuding a variety of toxic and potentially medicinal compounds. It’s easy to see why one common name of the two species is “Dutchman’s-breeches,” as their inflated flowers resemble old-fashioned pantaloons.
But I cannot figure out for the life of me the origin of “squirrel-corn,” as their seeds don’t resemble corn, and I’ve never seen a squirrel go after one. Any ideas, reader?
Violets are also among our early risers of the plant kingdom. We have an abundance of violet species, and sprays of their purple flowers can carpet the forest floor. Their seeds, like many of those of other spring ephemerals, are dispersed by ants.
The seeds are endowed with a fleshy, protein-rich appendage, the elaiosome. This tastes like a chocolate éclair to an ant, who will spare no expense in carrying off the seed to her nest, where the seed will find a happy home. No wonder it takes a flood of soil nutrients and solar energy for these plants to produce their expensive flowers and seeds.
Trout lily, with its nodding bright-yellow flowers and mottled leaves (reminiscent of the flanks of trout), and columbine’s bright-red flowers, bangled like a jester’s cap, round out the spring spectrum of color. Enjoy these now, for soon they will vanish as the forest shrubs and trees ramp up their own displays.
Or, this particular spring, they may have already passed as you read this. No winter really occurred for us this year, and in any case, it was the warmest on record.
Past research, including my own, has shown that forest soils with accelerated warming give rise to plants that spring up enthusiastically in mid-April, missing their pollinators altogether and heading back to their soil beds unrequited. I hope that this year, and in many to come, these plants will get their joy, and give you yours.
Elizabeth Farnsworth is Senior Research Ecologist with New England Wild Flower Society, and a fan of plants at any time of year.
Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week in the Daily Hampshire Gazette. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to usClick here to return to full list of Earth Matters articles.