The middle of May brings the end of Spring ephemerals in central Pennsylvania. These early spring flowers are done with blooming by the time the tree canopy fills in with leaves. Once the trees leaf-in the small woodland plants can’t get enough energy from the sun to continue growth. Their greenery dies back and the plant goes into a dormant period until the following year when late Winter warmings stir them back to life.
A neat thing about early woodland flowering plants is that they often bloom en masse. Hundreds of flowering plants in a small area is a sight to behold, especially when the rest of the landscape is still brown and grey. Photographs cannot do these beautiful scenes justice. One has to be there in person to experience the thrill that can only be suggested via photography.
Places north of Route 80 in Pennsylvania, or at higher elevation, still have a little time to see the Spring ephemeral flowers.
It can be a very uplifting experience to see the natural beauty of the country. When you go, don’t forget to take the camera!
Each year I don’t get to walk all the trails that I’d like to for one reason or another and sometimes I’m too early or too late to see certain plants blooming. Finding perennial plants that bloom only in the Spring can be tough. Relying on memories of past walks to help locate some flowers doesn’t help too much.
The best idea I have to share about re-finding plants is to take lots of pictures. Sure, take pictures of the flowers, but also take photos of the surrounding area. Photograph plants that are growing nearby and any other memorable landmark. Images of buildings, walkways, big trees, streams and trail markers can help you find your quarry again in future years.
Before setting out on a trail you’ve photographed previously, review the pictures to refresh your memory. Here is an example that I’ll use next year to find these pretty Hepatica plants. Photos taken 21 April 2011.
On the opposite side of the big tree there was a white-flowering hepatica growing in the shade.
To be able to find these posies again next year, I took a photo of the nearby vicinity. That way, I can review the images before coming to this location in future years. It’s a great way to refresh one’s memory!
Take a few pictures of the surrounding area to help you find your special friends again on future woodland walks.
On a warm and sunny day I caught this little kitty enjoying a roll on the flagstone. She had been nibbling the catnip that you can see in the foreground.
The perennial roots will keep catnip here for a long time. New sprouts will pop up in the adjacent areas as old sticks die back. Next Spring new growth will arise near the old growth. Some of the stems can be quite woody, especially near the base.
We like having catnip planted near the house. I don’t know if it acts to deter insects, but it does keep the felines close by. We really appreciate knowing that we won’t be bothered by mice or other rodents with our cat hunters nearby.
Finding a plant that you’ve never seen before can be exciting and even exhilarating, depending on the rarity of the plant and the likelihood of ever seeing it again – and on the efforts taken to observe such a thing. Finding a plant that you already know, but haven’t seen in the flowering or fruiting stage, or locating a flower in a new location can be just as exciting.
Once you’re familiar with some perennial plants, and if you know where a perennial plant comes up in the Spring, you can watch these plants change through the seasons. The same can be said for planting annuals by seed.
A fun project to do with interested children is to keep a photographic record by clicking a few photos each week as your plants develop. Compare the growth of your plant by comparing photos as you go along. You might learn a thing or two about your favorite perennial or wild herb.
A fairly common plant of our mixed-hardwood forest is a flowering herbaceous plant called False Solomon’s Seal, Smilacina racemosa. It’s noted for its similarity to Solomon’s Seal, Polygonatum biflorum, except for its terminal flower stalk and lack of dangling bell-shaped flowers.
Leaves of both False Solomon’s Seal and Solomon’s Seal are linear-veined oval leaves that alternate along a single arched stem. As the plant emerges from the ground the leaves are already forming.
The twisted stalks of the perennial False Solomon’s Seal coming up at base of an oak tree.
Leaves are rolled together at first and unfurl as the plant stalk grows, about 8 – 12 inches tall in these images, taken 2 May 2010. The main reason we can confidently state these are False Solomon’s Seal plants is that we’re familiar with these perennials that come up in the same place each Spring.
It’s mid-Spring now and the assembly of plants in the woodlands have made the scenery quite green compared to a month ago. The trees are leafed in for the most part, although a few oaks still have small leaves. Shade is dappled under the trees that don’t have all their leaves emerged just yet.
Walking in the woods now has a different feeling. Sure, there are still plenty of crunchy leaves to trod upon, but the view is quite different. With all the trees, shrubs, vines and herbs growing up and pushing their leaves out, the woods have a closed-in feeling. It feels like there is less room in there compared to a few weeks ago when you could see all the way through the woods.
Since each season is about three months long, we can say that each season has an early, middle and late period with each period lasting about a month.
During early spring Wild Ginger, Asarum canadense, emerged from the ground with their leaves a bit crinkled. Wild Ginger is a woodland perennial native to the Eastern US. Its leaves rise up from an underground stem, or rhizome, and the plant spreads out from this rhizome each year. It’s blossoms should be visible during mid-Spring.
The rounded, heart-shaped leaves of wild ginger rise up in pairs from the rhizome. Two leaves are connected to each other in a Y-shape.
Wild ginger spreads out and makes a nice ground cover with its leaves reaching a height of only 4 to 10 inches. A patch of wild ginger is eye-catching in a native plant garden.
Flowers of wild ginger must be sought out or you’ll never see them. The leaves hide the flowers out of sight and the flowers are not where you might expect them – at ground level. Sometimes the flowers don’t even push out of the ground all the way and remain partially covered by a layer of soil or old leaves. There is a single blossom that sits in the crotch of each pair of leaves.
The two leaves of wild ginger often hide its single maroon to brown blossom from view.
Wild ginger blooms are cup-shaped with three lobes giving it a triangular appearance. The flower stalk and flower are covered with hairs that make it look quite fuzzy. The flowers are light-colored on the outside with a maroon interior. They must be pollinated by ants or some other ground-wandering insect.
Looking down on the heart-shaped leaves and maroon flower of wild ginger.
Wild ginger flowers are coated with long hairs. The leaves and stems are covered with short hairs.
The flower of wild ginger rises out of the crotch of two leaves.
Wild ginger requires a moist to wetland, woodland habitat. Places like the edges or lowlands of creeks or rivers are good places to look for wild ginger.
Photos were taken 18Apr2010 at Little Buffalo State Park. Wild ginger can be seen in many places in the Day Use Area, near the covered bridge, along the Mill Race Trail, and at the upper west end of Middle Ridge Trail.
A few years ago I bought a wild ginger plant at a Native Plant Sale and planted it on the east side of our house, right next to the house in an area that receives mostly shade. Each year the ginger has come up a little bigger than the year before. This year there are seven pairs of leaves.
If you are lucky enough to find wild ginger for sale try planting it under a tree to mimic its native habitat. It would make a nice ground cover and at the same time it would receive the shade it requires to thrive.
A dainty little flower that can truly be appreciated from afar is called Bluets, Houstonia caerulea. You never see just one Bluet, so I guess that’s why they’re called Bluets.
Bluets are perennials that have the ability to form large colonies. It is this ability that will probably draw your attention to this tiny little plant.
Light blue flowers form a great big colony in the field in the image above. The flowers stand taller than the surrounding grass, which was very short, and so appeared as a great big patch of light blue color in the field.
Open areas, grassy fields and yards are likely areas to find Bluets, but they can occur in other open areas. Below, a small group of Bluets were found growing on a wooded bank along a country road.
The white spots in the image above are bluets that were growing on a hill that faced the morning sun. (Photo taken 13Apr2010. All other photos taken 7Apr2010.)
Four-petaled flowers are held upright on a thin stem, 2 to 8 inches high. Light blue to white petals surround a yellow ring in the center of the flower. Petals are pointed and the flowers look rather symmetrical.
Leaves are smaller than the blossoms. Very thin and short, the leaves are paired on the flower stems which have a few larger basal leaves.
The Houstonia genus is represented by 20 species in our area, but distinguishing them requires examination of the flowers, fruit and seed shape. Microscopy must be used to see fine seed detail in order to identify Bluets to the species level. Exact identification would require collection of fruits and seeds and further examination. In general, we can just refer to these cute little flowers as Bluets.
According to Peterson’s Medicinal Plants Guide Native Americans used a leaf tea for bed-wetting. No other use is mentioned and apparently Bluets aren’t edible, so I guess we’ll just have to appreciate the little Bluets smiling in the millions from afar.
Skunk Cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus, is quite noticeable this time of year as its enormous leaves dominate the wetlands. Go driving around the countryside and where there are creeks, backwaters, or the edges of rivers in woodlands look for the very large, bright green leaves of this perennial plant.
Skunk cabbage occurs in the wetland areas near the Mill Race Trail where you can see other spring ephemeral flowers at Little Buffalo State Park, Perry County, Pennsylvania. (Photo taken 3apr2010.)
No flowers are visible in this image of skunk cabbage plants growing at the creek’s edge. (Photo taken 3apr2010.)
The flower of skunk cabbage is a strange one. It is the earliest flowering plant of the season by coming up as early as February. Actually, several very small flowers are grouped together in a special structure. Pollinated by flies, these posies stink like rotting flesh some say, but I don’t have any experience to make that comparison. Let’s just say, skunk cabbage has an appropriate name!
Skunk cabbage flowers appear to be miniature yellow fringes dotted on a ball which is housed safely inside a leathery sheath. The sheath is referred to as the spathe and the ball of flowers inside the spathe is called the spadix.
As the flowers become pollinated and the growth activity of the plant continues, the temperature inside the spathe becomes warmer than the ambient temperature. It gets so warm in fact that skunk cabbage flowers have been observed to melt snow from around the plant.
The spathe in the image above – at the lower right of the plant – shows the typical mottled colors of maroon, brown, yellow and light green. The spadix cannot be seen through the opening of the spathe in the image above, but the tiny flowers are visible (in person) if you inspect inside the spathe.
Peterson’s Wildflower Guide lists skunk cabbage under both green and miscellaneous brown flowers. (Remaining photos taken 5apr2010 at Edgar’s Creek.)
The skunk cabbage plants in this creek-side group are large enough or old enough to have flowered. Note that the yellow-circled areas mark the flowers at the base of the leaves.
Leaves of skunk cabbage rise out of the ground all rolled together and rise up vertically as they emerge from the ground.
As the leaves get bigger and bigger they open up more and more. Skunk cabbage leaves are enormous as they can grow 1 – 3 feet long and half as wide.
Crushing a leaf releases the same rotten odor that the flower gives off. Nobody wants to eat this cabbage! However, Peterson’s Edible Wild Plants Guide tells us that the thoroughly dried leaves collected in very early spring can be used as a cooked green or reconstituted in soup. CAUTION – If the leaves are not dried well, calcium oxalate crystals – which are removed only by drying completely – will burn and cause inflammation. In fall the roots can be collected and dried completely to make a flour.
April 1st ushered in changes to the scenery around us here in South-central Pennsylvania. Spring blooming plants and trees are really starting to take off and other plants that bloom later in the year are shaking off their winter dormancy.
Forsythia shrubs are blooming in full with the sunshine showing their lemony yellow blooms. The sweet scent of star magnolia blossoms delight the nose from afar. In front yards everywhere you can see the yellow, orange and white of daffodils or narcissus blooms. Bradford pear trees are blooming white and magnolias are starting to open their heavy pink and white flowers.
Greenery of several plants are appearing —
virgin’s bower vine, down near end of lane
mayapple buds emerging an inch or so, only saw two buds
touch-me-nots sprouted all along area where wild rose on lane is being cut back, next to elderberry
One plant that I was a little surprised to see coming up is Bee Balm or Oswego Tea. It was transplanted last year from being in a pot for two years, even overwintering in the pot! I was surprised to see it made it through the winter and didn’t get frozen solid while in the pot. Last Autumn the bee balm was transplanted out back on the west side of the woods before the weather turned too cold to dig. Here, it will get filtered morning sun and full afternoon sun. I wonder if all Monarda are as hardy and survive extreme conditions as well as this Bee Balm.