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The Buzz

Happening Now: Early Spring Wildflowers Starting to Emerge

Virginia bluebells are just starting to emerge at Messenger Woods Nature Preserve. (Photo by Anthony Schalk)

Now that spring has arrived, the landscape is constantly changing. The grass is getting greener, trees are starting to bud and wildflowers are popping up all around us.

These early-spring wildflowers are called ephemerals because their presence is fleeting, coming and going before spring has fully sprung and the trees fully leaf out for the season, according to the University of Illinois Extension

As you might expect because of its name, harbinger of spring is the earliest of our ephemeral native wildflowers, sometimes popping up even before spring has begun, reports the University of Illinois Extension. Spotting harbinger of spring may require a stroke of luck, not just because their bloom time is short but because they are tiny, making them hard to spot on the forest floor.

Harbinger of spring. (Photo by Judith Wallace)

The tiny blooms on harbinger of spring are arranged in clusters of about six flowers, and they sit atop stems that barely stretch above the leaf litter that remains on the forest floor. These stems can be about 1 foot long, but they spread out along the ground rather than growing upward, according to the extension. Harbinger of spring is related to carrots, celery, dill and parsley, and the flowers and leaves of the plant look similar to these and other related plants, including the common and well-know Queen Anne's lace. 

Spring beauty is a pretty pink perennial that typically trails right behind harbinger of spring as the forest floor comes to life at winter's end. It sometimes grows in large patches, which can create an infusion of color on an otherwise still drab landscape. These flowers stand between 3 inches and 6 inches tall, and the flowers grow in clusters, according to Illinois Wildflowers.  

Spring beauty. (Photo by Judith Wallace)

The blooms, which have five small petals, can vary from the palest of pinks to bright shades of pink, and they typically appear striped with white. On warm, sunny days, the blooms open up, but they close up during cloudy weather and at night.

A pop of bright yellow on the ground at this time of year could very well be the bloom of an early buttercup. These wildflowers typically stand about 6 inches tall, and the bright yellow five-petal blooms can appear singularly or in clusters, Illinois Wildflowers reports. 

Buttercup. (Photo by Angela Rafac)

Another of our earliest ephemerals is hepatica. The flowers shoot up 3 inches to 6 inches from the ground, and each stalk produces a singular flower, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Hepatica blooms are typically lavender or blue, although pink and white hepatica flowers are not unheard of. Like spring beauties, hepatica flowers open all the way on sunny days but don't open fully on cloudy or rainy days.

Mayapple is one of our early spring wildflowers, but you could be forgiven for not thinking it's a wildflower at all. Mayapple is unique in that it produces just two leaves and one flower, and the flower is hidden away in the axis of the leaves, reports the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Mayapple. (Photo by Judith Wallace)

The leaves of the mayapple are what may grab your attention, because they are big — up to 1 foot across. The leaves typically have five to nine lobes, but the leaves usually remain folded up until the stems of the plant reach their full height of 12 inches to 18 inches, according to the University of Wisconsin Horticulture Division of Extension. Like many other spring ephemerals, mayapple often grows in clusters of colonies, but mayapple colonies can be large and dense. 

Soon, these already-blooming wildflowers will be joined on the forest floor by other colorful blossoms, including the always-anticipated Virginia bluebells. We've already seen bluebells just starting to pop up from the forest floor, getting ready to blanket the ground in a sea of bluish-purple.

Spring ephemerals provide more than just delight and expectation for the season to come; they are an important source of nectar for the first insects of the season, the University of Illinois Extension reports. These insects are vital as well, helping to pollinate the flowers.


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