Has spring sprung?
Brrr. The calendar says spring started Wednesday but it sure doesn't feel like it. Wind chills have been below zero and temperatures in the single digits. Doesn't exactly make one want to run outside without a jacket, does it?
Yet it won't be long before the unfurling of wild flowers -- spring ephemerals -- lure me into the woods and wetlands. Commencing with the earliest bloomers and ending in autumn, there's a steady parade of unparalleled splendor for the eye to behold. Some Today we'll touch on three early harbingers of spring: skunk cabbage, bloodroot and wild ginger.
Skunk cabbage is absolutely peculiar and often missed as a wildflower because of its appearance and because it's found in places where people seldom wander. It flourishes on the margins of swamps and seepage areas in eastern Minnesota. It pokes its pretty green coiled leaves up through the sea of tan leaf litter. Once you know what you're looking for it's easy to spot. The pointed, brown or purplish mottled spathe, 4 to 6 inches high, encloses a club-like stem, the spadix. This structure sports its tiny flowers.
Skunk cabbage is a peculiar flower often missed because of its appearance and because it's found in places where people seldom wander. (Photos by Andrea Lee Lambrecht)
Insects enter its botanical teepee to perform their duties of pollination. Later, the fruit, looking somewhat like a small-stalked and roughened potato, develops beneath the clump of very large summer leaves. The fruit contains hefty acrid seeds in a bland pulp.
Living up to its name, the plant has a skunky odor. Crush the leaves and you'll find out. Skunk cabbage generally blooms soon after the snow melts, though it will push up through snow if conditions are right.
Bloodroot is the fanciful foliage that first catches my eye. Its lobed leaves punctuate the khaki-colored forest floor. Shortly thereafter, the snowy white terminal flower bursts into bloom, exposing a tuft of golden stamens. Showing its face for only a few days, this member of the poppy family flourishes briefly before fading.
The flower is named for the red blood-like liquid that oozes from the plant when cut. According to one source, the juice was used by Native Americans to dye and decorate their faces and tomahawks. Frances Densmore, who gathered extensive information on the lives of the Ojibwe early in the last century, listed bloodroot as one of 69 medicinal plants used by both natives and whites.
Look for wild ginger in hardwood forests. The rootstalk has a mild ginger flavor and has been used in Indian and folk medicine.
Wild ginger is another early bloomer often overlooked because of its lack of showy flowers. It can make its entrance and exit without notice. A low woodland perennial, it has a pair of hairy, heart-shaped leaves at the end of an elongated and rather thick rootstalk.
The solitary wine-colored bloom has three triangular calyx lobes and nestles at ground level between the leaves. In Minnesota, look for wild ginger in hardwood forests throughout the state. According to Moyle and Moyle's book "Northland Wild Flowers," the rootstalk has a mild ginger flavor and has been used in Indian and folk medicine.
Skunk cabbage, bloodroot and wild ginger lead the way into spring, along with pasque flowers and hepaticas. Look carefully for these spring ephemerals to flower in the woods and wetlands near you in the coming weeks as the weather warms.
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