Seeking Spring Ephemerals
In early spring, well before the trees and shrubs send forth their leaves into the skies above, a fleeting class of plants emerges from the ground to live their brief, wonderous time in the unhindered spring sunlight. These flowers speckle the forest floor with patches of bright whites, yellows, purples, and reds, atop their brilliant fresh green foliage, in a welcome contrast to the subdued hues of winter. The ephemeral show lasts for a few short weeks before the flowers fade away and the lush greens of the plant wither away to wait the remainder of the year hidden secretly underground. In May 2020, I went off as a flower-hunter, spending time scouring a few local parks and preserves in the greater Holland, Michigan area, looking for native wildflowers. I found some ephemerals in bloom, was too late on others, but everywhere saw a diversity of early-blooming wildflowers. I encountered a much greater floral diversity than I could reasonably post here—so get out to your local parks and go seek your own wildflowers!
A sure sign of spring in the forest are the large brilliant blooms of the Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) Melantiaceae. Single stalks with leaves of three and flowers with petals of three (it is the TRI-llium, after all). The showy white flowers gradually turn to pink.
A personal favorite of mine is the swaths of Trout Lilies (Erythronium americanum) Liliaceae that blanket the forest floor. Bright yellow lily-like flowers nod from a stalk that emerges above their one or two leaves. Brown mottling on the leaves is said to resemble the skin of trout, giving rise to the plant’s common name. Their peak bloom in West Michigan is in April, but I was fortunate to catch a few late flowers in May.
Forming dense clusters of large, deeply-cleft umbrella-like leaves is the Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) Berberidaceae. The fleshy stalks emerge in April, and a single white flower blooms in May. The ‘apple’ that gives the plant its common name (also called a ‘forest lemon’) does not ripen until June, and all green parts of the plant, including the unripe fruit, are poisonous.
Found abundantly in wet, marshy areas is the aptly-named Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris) Ranunculaceae. This bright-yellow flowered plant grows in colonies and steadily blooms from April to August.
Another bright yellow flower, although this one with only a single bloom and being found in more upland the woods is the Hispid Buttercup (Ranunculus hispidus) Ranunculaceae. The word ‘hispid’ means covered with stiff hairs or bristles, and references the flowering stalk of the plant.
Dense colonies of 5-sepaled flowers growing up to one foot high in woodlands is an indicator of the False Meadow Rue (Isopyrum biternatum) Ranunculaceae. A true spring ephemeral, False Meadow Rue blooms for only a few weeks in May, then completely withers away to its roots.
Another flowering plant of moist woodlands, this one purple in color, is the Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) Geraniaceae. The geranium is popular with gardeners, and several domesticated varieties can be found in cultivation.
An incredibly brilliant and uniquely-shaped flower is found on the Wild Columbine (Aquilegea canadensis) Ranunculaceae. Several flowers, with five red-spurred petals and protruding yellow stamens, hang from the plant above its deeply lobed leaves. Nectar is stored in the flower’s spurs, providing food for pollinating hummingbirds.
Multiple globe-shaped clusters of tiny white flowers emerging from a single stem on the forest floor indicate Wild Sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) Araliaceae. Not far from the flowering stem are the leaves of plant, deeply divided into typically 5 leaflets. Young Wild Sarsaparilla with three leaflets and a glossy purple hue can sometimes uncannily resemble poison ivy. The roots can be used as a substitute for real Sarsaparilla flavoring, though the plant is not closely related to the True Sarsaparilla (Smilax sp.) of tropical climates.
A single palm leaf-like plant with a spiked cluster of small white flowers is the False Solomon’s Seal (Smilacina racemosa) Asparagaceae. It grows in the same habitat as the true Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum sp.), which will have several bell-shaped flowers hanging under the stem. The origin of the common name ‘Solomon’s Seal’ is unclear, though it was perhaps named in reference to the plant roots resembling a signet ring or Hebrew characters.
Not only were the wildflowers blooming, but some trees were in bloom too. I came across this small native understory tree, the Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) Fabaceae. The Redbud blooms profligately with bunches of pink flowers, making it no wonder it is popular as a landscape tree as well.
Showing promise of fruity treasure to come in June is this diminutive white flower, Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) Rosaceae. Wild strawberry plants sprawl across sunny open patches by spreading with runners. The thimble-sized strawberries are juicy and flavorful, and are quite popular with this flower-hunter.
The field guide I used in identifying these plants was Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide © 1977 by Little, Brown and Co.