Early spring is one of the best times of year to walk in the woods, and for many enthusiasts, such walks are treasure hunts.
For some, the search is for the elusive morel mushroom. But for others the quest is for the diversity of spring wildflowers found in our Brown County woodlands.
For me, each discovery of new blooms is like greeting old friends; they welcome me with familiar faces year after year. Trillium, trout lily, Dutchmen’s breeches and Virginia bluebells — the quest is on!
Our deciduous forests, with primarily beech-maple and oak-hickory communities, shade the forest floor with a dense leaf canopy from May to October. Thus, there is a very brief period from March to May for sun-loving woodland wildflowers to flourish.
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While the treetops are still bare, the spring sun warms the forest floor. Wildflowers that have been dormant for a year in the form of underground rhizomes, tubers or bulbs are triggered to sprout by longer and warmer days. They grow rapidly with the aid of spring rains.
These early bloomers, called spring ephemerals, will complete their entire life cycle in a short window of time. They must complete their growth, flower, reproduce and set seed before the canopy fills in with leaves. For most ephemerals, even the foliage disappears by June.
The timing of flowering for spring ephemerals is further complicated by the need for insects to carry pollen from one flower to another. Not only have the wildflowers been dormant for the winter, but so, too, have the insects.
Among the earliest pollinating insects to emerge are the queen bumblebees, who have been hibernating alone in abandoned mouse or vole nests. A queen’s job is to begin a new colony. She needs nectar to nourish herself so that she can lay eggs, and she needs pollen to provide for her first offspring to eat. She will busily visit early bloomers like spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) and hepatica (Anemone acutiloba).
Other early wildflower visitors include several species of small solitary bees that survive the winter in hollow stems and butterflies such as the mourning cloak, which over-winters under tree bark.
What happens when cold temperatures in spring limit the emergence of insects? Several spring ephemerals have optional strategies for reproduction.
One of my favorite examples is bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), with its showy eight white petals. Bloodroot is among the first to flower, with the advantage to be the first to attract pollinators. Bloodroot remains fully open for three to five days, and if pollination has not occurred by then, the stamens bend up to tap pollen onto its own stigma to self-pollinate. Options matter in our unpredictable Indiana spring!
Successful pollination results in the production of viable seeds, which are important for sustaining healthy wildflower populations as well for dispersing the species to new habitats.
Many spring ephemerals produce seeds with an additional appendage called an eliaosome. These structures are rich in lipids and proteins. Ants carry the seeds to underground nests to feed the eliaosomes to their developing larvae. They toss the remaining seeds in their garbage dump, called a midden, which serves both as protection from seed predators like mice and as nutrient-rich compost for successful seed germination.
This unique form of seed dispersal by ants is called myrmechocory, and it is found in up to 30 percent of our spring wildflowers such as Dutchman’s breeches, squirrel corn, trillium, trout lily and spring beauty.
So, get on your hiking boots and join the search for spring wildflowers. Two helpful guides are “Wildflowers and Ferns of Indiana Forests” by Michael A. Homoya and “Indiana Wildflowers” by Kay Yatskievych.
A great opportunity coming up is the Wildflower Foray, April 24-26. (tcsteele.org), and Brown County State Park has regular guided wildflower hikes.
Once you begin to recognize the wildflowers, you, too, will greet them next spring like old friends.
The annual Wildflower Foray provides a special incentive to get outdoors and smell the flowers — literally and figuratively. It takes place Friday through Sunday, April 24-26, with hikes and programs scheduled at many natural areas throughout Brown and part of Monroe counties.
This is a collaborative, three-day, family-friendly celebration of natural history and the arrival of spring.
Activities will include wildflower hikes and programs, birding, a boat trip on Monroe Lake, a nature photography workshop for kids and much more.
A special Saturday evening program about native pollinating insects and the diversity of plant life they support will be presented by Leslie Bishop. She is a Fulbright scholar and retired professor of biology at Earlham College in Richmond.
Participants on wildflower hikes help create a spring wildflower census for local natural areas. Everything in bloom is counted and identified, and the information collected helps to monitor wildflowers and habitat.
Hikes and programs are free of charge. A few activities require pre-registration.
For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 812-988-2785.
To download a complete schedule and wildflower checklists, visit tcsteele.org.
Focus on Wildflowers will be led by award-winning photographer Richard Fields beginning at 1 p.m. Saturday, April 25. This free, two-hour photo excursion will explore the Steele property, with lots of camera tips on capturing the best images of spring’s beauties. Participants must have their own cameras. The workshop is limited to 20 adults and older teens and pre-registration is required; call 812-988-2785 or email email@example.com.
Pixel Kids Nature Photography Workshop is a free program suggested for ages 8-16. It will take place from 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday, April 26. Instructors Carroll Ritter and Martha Fox will focus on flowers and insects, tree forms, landscapes and building perspectives. The workshop is limited to 15 children, and pre-registration is required. Parents can enjoy another program that will be running concurrently or take a guided building tour while the kids have fun. Participants must have their own cameras. To register, call 812-988-2785 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.