April 23, 2019

No sooner has the frost come out of the ground than the first hardy wildflowers have pushed up through the leaf litter and are in bloom.  Bloodroot, spring beauties, hepatica, dutchman’s breeches and Virginia bluebells form only the first wave of many species, while emerging leaves attest to the beauties yet to appear.

The first sight of bloodroot is a single vertical grey-green leaf curled up around a bud.  It sprouts from a rhizome, an underground horizontal plant stem which has reddish poisonous sap (where it got it’s name), and puts out lateral shoots and adventitious roots at intervals along its length. Its flowers, that are pollinated by small bees and flies, usually bloom here in April and have 8–12 delicate white petals and many yellow stamens.   After blooming the leaves unfurl to their full size and then go dormant in mid to late summer.

Their orange-red seeds develop in green pods, and bloodroot is one of many plants that depend upon ants to disperse the crop.    Attached to each seed is a fatty structure called an elaiosome and that is very attractive to little insects, and often ants harvest them and carry them back to the colony to feed their larvae.  The seed itself is discarded unharmed in the nest debris and a number of these eventually germinate and grow into new plants the following year.  In one recorded instance, an ant carried a seed for some 230 feet from the parent plant. 

Hepaticas have a very different life style. The common name comes from the supposed resemblance of its leaves to the human liver, both of which have three large lobes.  (Some two thousand years ago, many people believed that God would have wanted to show men what plants could be useful, and therefore they searched for healing herbs that resembled ailing parts of the body.)  The leaves don't start opening up in the spring until the flowers bloom, and are mostly solid green or two-tone green through spring and summer.  They turn dark green or brown in fall and persist through the winter, withering away when the plant starts blooming again the following spring. The flower itself is white, pink or lavender striped with darker lines and is displayed on its own hairy leafless stalk.  It often appears as soon as the ground thaws, and usually has six or more petal-like sepals and numerous white stamens surrounding a green center. 
The spring beauty grows only a few inches tall and produces a group of flowering stems with pairs of opposite leaves often lying close to the ground.  Each unbranched stem displays a cluster of tiny white flowers with fine pink stripes barely a half-inch across on short stalks at its tip.  The flowers open up on warm sunny days, and close during cloudy weather or at night, and the blooming period occurs from mid- to late spring and lasts a month or two.  

New flowers are produced as the shoot grows, each lasting about three days, although the five stamens on each flower are only active for a single day.  The seeds also have elaiosomes for the ants and both the flowers and foliage fade away by mid-summer.  This plant has also been used by native Americans, who ate its roots as food believing they had medicinal benefits.  Such uses have not been proven and its small size makes its use as food rather impractical.

All most everyone is familiar with dutchman’s breeches with their finely divided leaflets and tiny pantaloons hanging from arching stems.  They grow from a cluster of small pink to white teardrop-shaped bulblets and it is surprising to learn that in the autumn, starch in the bulblets is converted to sugar, and the beginnings of the next spring's leaves and flowers develop below ground.

The flowers usually white and are dependent on bumblebees for cross-pollination; in fact, the flower’s structure and mechanism by which it is pollinated indicate that it is adapted for bumblebees which can separate the outer and inner petals of the flower. They will then use their front legs to expose the stigma, stamen, and anthers, and shortly afterwards, will sweep pollen in a forward stroke by utilizing their middle legs, before returning to the colony with the pollen.  The pistil develops into a slender pod that splits in half when the seeds are ripe. The seeds are kidney-shaped, and also have elaisomes to with a faint netlike pattern.  The leaves and flower stems die back in late spring after the seed has ripened, and the bulblets remain dormant through the summer.

Also sprouting up around the area are clusters of broad gray-green leaves that eventually can reach two feet in height.  These herald the coming of the sky-blue blossoms of the Virginia bluebells, also known as cowslip or lungwort.  The flower has five petals fused into a tube, five stamens and a central pistil and are borne in mid-spring in nodding spiral-shaped clusters at the end of arched stems.  Flower buds are pink to purplish, turning blue when the flower opens.  The stamens and stigma are spaced too far apart for self-fertilization and the flower is usually pollinated by bumblebees and butterflies. In early summer, each fertilized flower produces four seeds within wrinkled nuts and the plant goes dormant till the next spring.

There is no doubt that it is our long cold winter as well as their ephemeral displays that make these delicate wildflowers so enjoyable, but they rival all the roses, dahlias and other flowers that capture our attention during the remainder of the summer.