One of the true joys of spring is enjoying the myriad of spring wildflowers. They come and go quickly and their transience makes us appreciate them more. It is their brevity that has given them, collectively, the name “spring ephemerals.”
Spring ephemerals appear in woodlands early, before the trees grow leaves, while the forest floor is still bathed in dappled sunlight. In fact, there may still be snow on the ground As the days become longer, they use the new warmth of spring to sprout, bloom, and produce seeds, all within a few weeks. As the trees grow leaves and shade takes hold, the flowers disappear back into the forest until another summer, fall, and winter have passed.
Although they may be small and not last long, spring wildflowers make up for that with their beautiful array of colors Some are white, such as bloodroots, trilliums, trout lilies (dogtooth violets), and Dutchman’s breeches. Many are pink or purple, such as spring beauties, hepaticas, wild geraniums, phlox, bluebells, and columbines. Yet others, such as bellworts and buttercups, are yellow. And some are even red, such as wild gingers.
Many of local spring ephemerals are unique in other ways. For instance, columbine, trout lily, and bellwort flowers droop or hang upside down. Bloodroot leaves wrap around their flowers and hepatica stems are hairy. Wild ginger flowers are almost impossible to spot, snuggling the forest floor, hidden underneath their large, heart-shaped leaves.
Speaking of leaves, anyone can even tell how old a trout lily is by looking at its leaves. For the first 4-6 years, trout lilies only produce a single leaf, a smaller one the first couple years and a larger one the next couple years. Once the plant is about 6-7 years old, it finally begins to produce two leaves. Only then does it begin to flower.
There are dozens of species of spring wildflowers in north Iowa. To find them, simply head out to a nearby park or other wooded area before June and look down. Although they’re colorful, they aren’t necessarily showy; they can be a little shy at times. Yet, a leisurely walk will reveal a world of silent, graceful beauty close to your feet.
Many good field guides available to help people learn more about spring wildflowers. They may also contact Winnebago County Naturalist Lisa Ralls at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 641-565-3390 for more information about how you can identify these little gems.