Spring Flowers Ready to Explode

One of the most exciting times of the year at the Baird Creek Greenway is upon us, the blooming of the spring Ephemerals.  Most of the woodland flowering plants are called ephemerals, which means “here today, gone tomorrow”.  Streams that flow during the spring and early summer, and then dry up are called ephemeral streams.  In woodlands there is a narrow window in which there is sufficient light for plant growth on the forest floor.  That window closes when the trees are fully leafed out, effectively blocking out most of the sunlight.

A classic example of a spring ephemeral is the trout lily, (Erythronium americanum), also known as the dogtooth violet or adder tongue.  The name trout lily comes from the spots on the leaves that resemble those on a brook trout.  If you walk the portion of the greenway northeast of Christa McAuliffe during the next 2 weeks you will see millions of trout lilies.  If you walk the same trails a month from now there will be no evidence the trout lilies were ever there.  They’re still there; they’re just living underground, the leaves and flowers will have decomposed.

Because their window for photosynthesis is very short, it takes a long time for a trout lily to mature, for the first 2-3 years only a tiny single leaf is produced, the next 2-3 years a single larger leaf is produced, and after that 2 leaves will form.  The trout lily will first start to bloom when it is 6-7 years old, and from then on will bloom as long as it lives.  The trout lily has a food storing bulb on its root, the food storage is necessary for the plant to overwinter and send up new growth the following spring.

The trout lily has a pretty single yellow flower.  In any mat of lilies, the majority of plants are less than 6-7 years old, so most of the plants don’t produce flowers.  The Baird Creek trout lilies should be blooming soon.

Flowers that are blooming right now include bloodroot, hepatica, skunk cabbage and marsh marigolds.  The marsh marigolds, (Caltha palustis), also called cowslips, are just starting to blossom, in another week they should be at their peak.

The marsh marigolds are found in wet areas, usually growing right in the seeps, wet areas that are fed by groundwater, in the same locations where you find skunk cabbage.  During the next week you can catch the end of the skunk cabbage blossoming, and the beginning of the marsh marigold show.  If you hike in east of Superior Road and south of the creek you will see the most spectacular flower show of the whole year!  For the next couple of weeks, the shallow seepage tributaries will be covered with the beautiful yellow of the marsh marigold.

Because Baird Creek has a great diversity of spring ephemerals, the flower show is spread out over a long period.  The earliest bloomers, skunk cabbage for example, begin in early March, and some of the later bloomers, such as May apples, will bloom into early June.   If you would like to learn to identify spring wildflowers, a book I would recommend is Wild Flowers of Wisconsin, by Stan Tekiela.

See you on the trails!