A Walk in the Woods: Spring Ephemerals & Other Plants

At the time and in the place I grew up, pretty much all the original prairie had been plowed over and planted to crops.  Because of regular cultivation and persistent use of herbicides there weren’t a lot of original plants left – it was more or less corn and soybeans and a few other crops from horizon to horizon.  Most people in that area and era considered any remaining naturally occurring plants to be “weeds”.    I'm sure my thoughts on the subject, when I thought about it at all, were right there with everybody else. Then Mr. Hjelmeland entered my world.  Martin Hjelmeland was the local Norwegian bachelor science teacher.  The school was small, so he taught science to all grades from the seventh graders to the seniors, and he was a firm believer in teaching by traditional methods.  He would draw elaborate illustrations of the constellations on the blackboard, and would drill us on them.  Then on a dark night we would assemble on the baseball diamond behind the school and Mr. Hjelmeland would point out the real constellations and stars – every one of them constructed just like he had drawn them on the blackboard. 
In the spring he would bring potted spring ephemerals into the classroom and one-by-one, over and over, his students would struggle to identify each one.  Then on a Saturday sometime in the spring we would take a bus trip to a nearby state park and we would follow him through the woods as he pointed out those same plants in their native habitat. 
I credit him for sparking my interest in science which eventually resulted in my career as a medical microbiologist - where I would spend my days identifying the microorganisms that were making the patients I served sick - one-by-one, over and over.  He probably also deserves a lot of credit for my living on nine acres of mixed hardwood forest. 
This time of year as I trek around the woods, the spring ephemerals are popping up everywhere, and as I enjoy them, and stop to take a closer look, I think of Mr. Hjelmeland.
Ephemerals are plants that spring out of the ground, bloom, and die in a very short time.  Desert ephemerals, for example, are those plants that take advantage of wet periods after rare rains to go through their entire life cycle.  Spring ephemerals are plants that live in densely shaded deciduous forests and complete their entire life cycle between spring snow melt and the leafing out of the trees. Most of them grow from bulbs or tubers so they can poke shoots up through the ground quickly without waiting around for seeds to germinate.  By late May or early June, once the trees have completely developed their foliage, they're gone.
Here are a few of my old favorites that I’ve recently been bumping into here and there around the ranch.  I shot all of the photos right here in the woods.

Bellwort (Uvularia) – The little yellow flowers of the bellwort hang downward from the plants which stand a foot and a half to two feet high.  Bellwort is one of the many plants that acquired its scientific name from Linnaeus, who felt that the drooping flowers were like the little flap that hangs down in the back of your mouth.

Blood Root (Sanguinaria canadensis) – Blood root is hard to misidentify – The round lobed leaves and the small waxy flowers with white petals and yellow centers are classic.  And true to its name, if a root is broken open, it oozes a red juice. This is one of the earliest wildflowers to bloom and I like to keep an eye on the patch that always comes up near one corner of the deck as an indicator of the progression of spring.  The red juice is fairly toxic and can actually even kill skin cells if left on unprotected skin for a period of time.  Because of the toxic effect on skin cells, it has been used as a home remedy for warts and skin cancer.  Kids, do not try this at home! 

Blue violets (Viola sororia) – The flower with the confusing name.  Are they blue or are they violet?  Obviously, “blue” is the color in this case and “violet” is the name of the flower – and there are also white violets, yellow violets, etc.  This flower is practically everywhere – you can get a picture of its wide range by considering that it is the state flower of Wisconsin, Illinois, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.  And this flower is practically everywhere – as in I have to weed great quantities of them out of my gardens and flower beds and they are plotting to take over my lawn.  Still, what’s wrong with having pretty little blue flowers polka-dotting the lawn?  Not only do the bees love them, but they’re edible—before you mow your lawn, snag a bunch of these little guys and add an attractive blue garnish to your salad!  They’re chock full of vitamin C, too!  Just make sure you've got the right flower - other flowers growing on your lawn can be quite toxic.

Yellow violets (Viola pusescens) – There are actually a bunch of different kinds of yellow violet and they can be difficult to differentiate, but the one pictured is the Downy Yellow Violet, which is exactly what nobody around here calls it.  Plain old “yellow violet” works just fine since it’s the only yellow violet that's common in wooded areas during spring in Minnesota.  The plants are larger and rangier than the blue violets, but they have the same cute little flowers – only yellow!

Heptatcia (Anemone acutiloba) – These are another really early bloomer.  They used to grow in great abundance south of my house, but in recent years there have not been so many and I’m not sure what has changed to cause the decrease.  They have delicate little flowers that range from white through pink to lavender and get their name from the fact that their leaves have three lobes, just like a liver.

Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) – I took a walk in the woods with my three-year-old grandson last weekend and taught him all about Jacks.  He became fairly proficient at finding them, and when he did, he would open the flap at the top of the “pulpit” so he could say hi to the “Jack” inside.  Jack-in-the-Pulpits really are flowering plants, and the Jack part really is the flower even though it doesn’t look anything like what we think of as flowers.  The Jacks function, like that of any flower, is to attract pollinators.  Jacks produce a smell that flies like a lot and the flies carry pollen from the male flowers to the female flowers. Male and female Jack flowers look exactly alike – the male and female parts are hidden deep at the base of the flower.  Any given plant may produce male flowers one year and female flowers the next – it seems to depend on stored nutrients – young plants and plants that put a lot of energy into fruit production the year before are more likely to produce male flowers while plants with sufficient available nutrients to produce fruit will produce female flowers.  While the flower is not at all colorful, the fruit is a spectacular shiny red cluster (see inset).  Do Not Eat These Plants or Their Pretty Red Fruit!  They contain more calcium oxalate than you can shake a stick at!  Calcium oxalate is a sharp insoluble crystal that can cause tissue damage because it is sharp and form kidney stones because it is insoluble.  Calcium oxalate occurs at varying levels in a variety of plants we consider edible – some of the plants we eat with higher levels include pineapple, spinach, and rhubarb.  The level of calcium oxalate in Jacks is so high that they are quite poisonous.  

Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) – Trillium is rare enough that the State of Minnesota has laws against picking it.  Trillium has an interesting means of propagation – ants carry the fruit to their nests and eat everything but the seeds which then sprout right in the anthills.

Wild geraniums (Geranium maculatum) - The plants, which can be up to two feet high, produce a multitude of pretty purple flowers a couple inches across.  They grow in wonderful profusion in certain spots in my woods late May and early June.  They are easily transplantable, thus a certain number of these guys are now living in some of the beds around the house.  The plant, and especially the roots are rich in tannins, and were used in traditional folk medicine to treat inflammation and hemorrhages. You can still find wild geranium extract at herbal stores being sold for this same purpose. 
Rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides) - This is a delicate little plant that never gets more than about nine inches high with lobed leaves and several light pink or lavender flowers about an inch across. Like trillium, rue anemone can spread its seeds by ants carrying the seeds to their nests.

Interrupted Fern (Osmunda claytoniana) - These guys are not spring ephemerals, but I mention them because they are so plentiful on my acreage. I probably have a couple of acres of ferns and the most common fern is the Interrupted.  These ferns are unique because unlike most other ferns that produce their spores on separate fruiting fronds, the vegetative fronds of Interrupted Ferns are interrupted in the middle by 2 to 5 pairs of small spore producing structures that look a little like tiny clusters of brown grapes.  Once the spores are gone, the fronds are left with a big empty “interrupted” space.  These ferns grow mostly in the most densely shaded parts of the woods and on north-facing slopes.  The thick cover of ferns in an already dim part of the woods pretty much guarantees that no other plants will grow.  But I figure with fronds like these, who needs anemones.  

Wild Leeks (Allium tricoccum) - These plants are not only entirely edible, but they are entirely delicious - from the root to the stem.  They have a pungent smell and taste somewhere between garlic and onion.  They can be substituted for either of those vegetables, but will add a flavor not exactly like either of them but uniquely like wild leeks.  They grow in the woods pretty much anywhere in North America east of the Missouri River. In the Southeastern part of the US where they grow abundantly, they're called  "ramps" and spring festivals are held in a number of localities where they are served generously in all sorts of delicious traditional concoctions.  I've only ever found one small patch on my property, at the foot of a north facing slope.  I visit that spot every spring but have to be conservative in my harvest, so I treasure every plant.  While many if not most Americans are unfamiliar with this plant, it had an interesting role in US history. When the French explorer La Salle first traversed the area south of the Great Lakes, he found an area that was abundant in wild leeks.  The natives called these plants "shikaakwa" in their Algonquian language and used that same word to describe the area and the river that ran through it.  La Salle francofied the word to "chicagou" - the name that he used on his maps.  The name of the river and the city that eventually developed there were later anglified to "Chicago."

Morels (Morchella) - These, of course, are mushrooms not plants, but they are still spring ephemerals in the sense that they send their fruit out of the ground for a few weeks in the spring and then disappear.  Not every state has a state mushroom, but Minnesota does, and it is the morel - a perfect choice since it grows well here and it is also delicious.  Many Minnesotans have their secret, cherished morel hunting spots that they visit every spring.  There is a huge body of folklore surrounding morel hunting and habitat.  When the trillium start to bloom, it's time to start looking for morels.  You can find them in forests or in fields or in old orchards.  You can find them along fence rows or floodplains.  You can find them under big old trees, or under dead or dying trees.  You can find them under elms, or ash, or cottonwoods.  Or maybe you won't find them in any of those places.  Mostly you'll find them where they happen to be growing at that moment. I find morels randomly and rarely on my property, and usually when I'm not looking for them.  I never find them in the same spot the next year.  These three little beauties found their way into my hands and then into my lunch last week.  I sautéed  them with some wild leeks in a little butter, tossed in some flour to form a roux, then added some vegetable broth, some milk, and a little salt and pepper to make a very pleasant mushroom soup. 

Thanks in joining me for this walk through the woods.  On the next post we'll go back to the birds!

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