Wild Side: A jump start on spring this year
December, 2011 through March, 2012 was a remarkably wimpy winter. We received only about 22 inches of snow. The snow cover was discontinuous, there were few nights below zero and our usual three months of winter were shortened by about a month.
According to the Wisconsin State Climatology Office, March 9 through April 7 was probably record-setting in Pierce County with daily temperatures 17 degrees above the long-term average.
We definitely got a jump start on spring. On March 23, when we returned from vacation in the tropics, trees were budding out, our cherry trees were flowering, frogs were singing in the ponds and many migratory birds had returned. Having only plowed snow twice all winter, I took the presumptive step of removing chains from our old tractor. I hope that doesn't result in an April freeze and big snowfall.
The unseasonably warm temperatures have triggered many biological events to start early this year. I've seen over-wintering morning cloak butterflies out and about in March. The spring sugar maple sap flow that normally happens during April occurred only for a few days in March. Maple syrup will be in short supply and costly this year.
A real treat this time of year is to watch the progression of spring ephemeral flowers blooming in the woods. They are the delicate but hardy group of plants that flower and bear fruit in a month or two in the spring before the leaves on the trees are completely out.
Spring ephemerals are adapted to moist soil, the high levels of soil nutrients from the decomposing leaves, and the abundant sunlight in early spring in the forest. They take advantage of these growing conditions by being adapted to cool conditions. Growing close to the moist forest floor protects them from frost and wind. Some plants like bloodroot wrap leaves around their flowers to protect them from frost. Others, like pasque flower, are covered with small hairs like a fur coat.
The early-blooming species like rue anemone, bloodroot, Dutchman's breeches, spring beauties, hepatica and wild ginger are already part of the spring flower show around here.
Rue anemone is a member of the buttercup family with white or pink flowers that is one of the first to bloom in the springtime woods.
Bloodroot has white flowers with 8 to 12 delicate white petals and yellow stamens. Their lobed leaves unfurl around the flower stems. They store sap in orange rhizomes near the soil surface. The sap is bright red and has been used as a dye and treatment for skin ailments.
Dutchman's breeches are distinctive early spring flowers, white "pantaloons" with yellow tips hanging upside down over a mound of feathery sage green leaves.
Spring beauties are low-growing flowers with five white petals with pink stripes. Like many other spring ephemeral flowering plants, they open on sunny days and close on cloudy days and at night.
Hepaticas are also species in the buttercup family. They are jewels in the otherwise brown early spring woods. Each flower grows on one hairy stem, with six or more sepals that appear to be petals and three green bracts. The flowers range in color from white to blue, lavender and pink. Their heart-shaped three-lobed leaves grow low to the ground.
Wild ginger has heart-shaped green leaves with a hidden dark red flower growing at the base of the plant.
Many of the spring ephemeral flower species produce seed with an oily appendage called an "elaiosome." The elaiosomes attract ants that carry the seeds off to their underground nests where they consume the tasty gift and leave the seeds to germinate. This strategy of seed dispersal works well in early spring when there are few other seed-eating animals about. Having ants disperse seed also means that many of the ephemeral spring flowers are vulnerable to disturbance and can't readily re-colonize distant areas.
Enjoy the rest of the spring flower show. Next on stage will be trilliums, trout lilies, wild geraniums, Jack-in-the-pulpit, phlox, and many others.
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