May 21, 2008
By Susan Benson,
CNHM Director of Education
Locals like to call the time between when the snow melts and when the trees leaf out “mud season,” and with good reason. We may have had a short mud season this spring, but get out into the woods to discover a flowering spring treat: ephemerals.
Spring ephemerals are short-lived wildflowers that take advantage of a narrow window of opportunity when the sun rises higher in the sky and stays out longer, but before trees completely leaf out and block sunlight from reaching the forest floor. These opportunistic flowers will sprout, flower, wither and die back all in the space of about a week.
Often the first wildflower noticed by casual walkers is the trillium, a plant belonging to the lily family that has a large, often white, three-petaled flower above three broad bracts that look like leaves. These white flowers slowly turn into a shade of purple in the middle of spring.
Another ephemeral is hepatica, named from its leaves, which, like the human liver have three lobes. As part of the doctrine of signatures, it was once believed that plants were created for the use of human beings and as such, each plant displayed a signature of the purpose for which it was created - hepatica was thought an effective treatment for liver disorders. In marshy areas, look for skunk cabbage, a strong-smelling plant that Henry David Thoreau once called the “hermit of the bog.” Other spring wildflowers include spring anemone, spring beauty, wild geranium, marsh marigold, and bloodroot.
Being among the very first plants to grow and on the drab forest floor, spring ephemerals’ flowers stand out and attract pollinators like bees. Ants also play a role in the life cycle of these plants; after flowering, the spring ephemerals typically produce a small black seed with an energy-rich sac attached to it. Seeking food, ants gather the sacs and carry them to underground nests, leaving behind the seeds underground in their “garbage pile”, and essentially planting the seeds.
Watch for the flowers of spring ephemerals on woodland spring hikes, but avoid picking the flowers or digging up the plants, which are often rare or fragile and play an important role in the woodland ecosystem. If you are looking for some great places to hike and find spring ephemerals, try out the Forest Lodge Nature Trail, 9 miles east of Cable on Garmisch Road.
Nature Watch is brought to you by the Cable Natural History Museum. For 40 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility in Cable at 43570 Kavanaugh Street or on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about exhibits and programs.