Turkey season is upon us, and before the season started I’d often see a longbeard strutting on a piece of public land as I drove to work. So, naturally, one day I stopped and walked into his neighborhood to find out what he’s all about. My scouting ventures prior to hunting season consist of me walking slowly through an area and carefully memorizing how everything is laid out. Learning the landscape is key, because in the next few weeks I might be walking these grounds before first light can give me guidance.
After about an hour, I had seen most of what I wanted to see, but I kept going. I was walking a trail paralleling a big ravine, and jumped off trail onto a knob so I could peer down into the ravine, which is host to a meandering creek. The leaves of the forest floor crinkled as I stepped, forcing me into a tip-toe walk, looking down for each step as means not to spook any would be critters. As I reached the edge of the knob it felt as if I walked into a new world. I could see one blooming wildflower after another as I pulled out my phone and started taking pictures. I could identify a few of these flowers, but I had never seen most of them before. Even so, I could tell they were the good guys. These were the native spring ephemerals everyone has talked about! What started as a turkey scout suddenly turned into a search for wildflowers.
Every year I hear people talking about the first wildflowers that bloom during the spring. However, I’ve never been lucky enough to put eyes on those little wonders of our spring woodlands until this year. I am familiar with many of the wildflowers of the prairie, but when it comes to woodland flower identification in the spring, I have to put the training wheels back on. This is a class of wildflowers referred to as the “spring ephemerals” that have attracted my curiosity since the time I first heard about them in college.
Timing is everything. Just like the short-lived morel mushroom season, the duration of growth for many of these flowers is extremely short (ephemeral). If you wait until late May to get into the woods, you’re likely to miss many of these wildflowers in bloom. These guys are taking advantage of the early spring sunlight reaching the soil before the trees leaf out and as the temperatures begin to rise. Once the trees get their foliage, the amount of light available to these understory plants is minimal. The spring ephemerals of our woodlands quickly grow, produce seed, and absorb back into dormancy in a short time period. Many other plants throughout Iowa require a full growing season for their reproduction cycle.
The temperatures in early spring are still on the chilly side at this time of year, therefore many insects (butterflies, bees, etc.) are not out yet. So, what pollinators are these little flowers trying to attract? As it turns out, I did find some insects flying around getting the job done for these little flowers, like solitary bees, even with the cool temperatures. Don’t question these plants Derek, they know what they are doing – they’ve had years of practice.
Since that little walk, I have gone back into the woods a few times each week trying to find the next round of new blooming wildflowers (and maybe a turkey or two). It helps that this is a great time to be out there anyway, since morels are popping and turkeys are gobbling! I wonder if I would have found these guys had that gobbler not taunted me to walk into his home…
Here are some pictures of spring wildflowers I’ve taken the past few weeks. I included two from last year as well, because they are not in bloom yet this year. (Coming soon!)
P.S. This post is the first of a series where I will briefly highlight a wildflower or two on a bi-weekly basis. I had to kick-off spring with a jackpot of spring ephemerals for the first wildflower Wednesday post, right?