e·phem·er·al (əˈfem(ə)rəl): lasting for a very short time.
They brighten the dull brown forest floors even before winter has really left. Spring ephemerals put all of their energy into carpeting the woodland in color and then fade away under the shade of the full canopy. Unencumbered by the leaves of the trees, they soak up the warm spring sun as it thaws the ground. The show has many acts. You could visit the same area twice weekly for a month or more and see a different flower dominating the scene each time.
All of the images included here were taken over the last ten days in Kane County Forest Preserves. First, I visited Johnson’s Mound Forest Preserve on a 60-degree, bluebird sky day. A few days later I hiked the woods at Dick Young Forest Preserve with partial cloudiness, biting wind, intermittent snow flurries, and 20-degree wind chills. Lastly, I explored Tekakwitha Woods Forest Preserve on a gray, 50-degree morning. Here is what I found.
It starts with bloodroot. Bright white blooms burst forth on a single spindly stem embraced by a curled palmate leaf. As the foliage unfurls, the petals will fall, leaving the stem and broad scalloped leaves that will remain until fall.
I prefer the closed flower in its intimate relationship with the leaf. For me, the fully open flowers lack the drama and emotion of the embraced bud. The dramatic shape and the course, veined texture of the leaves, make them a compelling subject even without the flower. Those in the know anticipate the bloodroot bloom in late March and early April, scouring the forest floor in search of this first sign of spring.
Hepatica is another early spring bloomer. Diminutive, delicate flower clusters grow on fuzzy stems as if arranged in a bouquet. They arrive in hues of soft blues, lavender, and white. The flowers close, hanging toward the ground each night. The light of the sun stimulates them to open and reach for the sky with each new day. These flowers last for 2-3 weeks. Like the bloodroot, their characteristic, smooth, trilobed leaves will emerge after the flowers fade and remain through the growing season.
Colonies of mayapple are starting to push through the leaf litter. They erupt like pale green fat fingers.
As the stem grows taller, the leaves unsheath and begin to unfurl. They are wound tightly on the stem like a folded umbrella hugs its handle. The green flower bud leads the way, pointing to the sky. It’s not until the stem has almost reached its full height that the leaves open up.
Plants in their first year will have one leaf, while those in their second year have two. It is only the two-leaved mayapples that produce flowers. Their white flowers, which as you may expect, bloom in May and hang downward underneath the palmate leaves above. If you see a photographer lying on their belly in the woods this spring, it’s probably a wildflower photo they’re after.
Bloodroot and hepatica are followed closely by Dutchman’s Breeches. Pairs of pantaloons line up on arching stems above fern-like mounds of leaves. The flowers glisten as if perpetually dewy. These flowers seem exotic in the midwest hardwood forests.
Aptly named spring beauties are petite pink striped flowers with grass-like leaves. The stripes are often called Bee Lines because they guide bees to the nectar. These flowers conserve their energy and only open on warm, sunny days when pollinators are likely to be active. On cold, gray days, their flowers are closed into tight, tiny buds barely noticeable on the forest floor. These are one of my favorite early ephemerals.
Carpets of mottled spear-shaped pairs of leaves in greens and burgundy foretell the delicate white trout lily. Dangling buds appear on a single stalk that arching sharply at the top. These lilies will open facing the ground.
The petals often have a pink cast, especially when young. As the flower opens, the petals curl back up to the sky, giving the plant the recognizable monkshood lily shape. The leaves appear in early spring with the buds soon to follow. However, the full flower doesn’t usually appear until mid to late spring.
Like some other spring wildflowers, cutleaf toothwort conserves its energy for a sunny day. Overcast, chilly days will see the blooms droop and partially close, whereas sunshine reveals erect stems with flowers facing the sky. Its nectar is vital to many species of bees, and it is common through Illinois woodlands. It doesn’t get me excited like some of the other flowers I’ve mentioned, but I would be remiss not to include it here.
Up and Coming
The red trillium are up next, their buds waiting at the center of three mottled leaves. Next week they will be open. The Virginia bluebells, violets, bellwort, and phlox also aren’t far behind. Between now and early May, there are bright surprises in the woodlands right outside your door. Get out, recharge, and take in some of the hope of spring.
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