Could it be….spring?

April 11, 2023

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

When we drove up north last Friday, patches of snow and ice still lurked in the twin cities.  By the time we returned on Tuesday, almost every  bit of snow had disappeared, and the temperature topped 80 degrees.  Could any early wildflowers (besides skunk cabbage, which melted its way out of the ground weeks ago) already be  blooming?

Since most of our earliest flowers bloom in bare woods to soak up sun before the trees leaf out, we decided to drive on down 35W to Townsend Woods Scientific and Natural Area (SNA), a remnant of old growth maple hardwood forest near Morristown.

Getting into Townsend Woods involves a longish walk alongside a farm field, but once we entered among the trees and crunched through last year’s leaf litter, we began looking for mottled purple-red hepatica leaves.  Hepatica hangs on to last year’s leaves until this year’s flowers bloom, then grows new green leaves which stay on the plant until the following spring. 

Almost immediately we spotted a sharp-leaved hepatica in bud.  
Then a hepatica in flower, pale white against the brown forest floor.  
And then a purple-flowered bloom.
And another.  And another. And a cluster of blooms.
Hepatica did not let us down.

Other signs of imminent spring: a few single trout lily leaves, Virginia waterleaf (an important flower for early native bees) beginning to leaf out, tiny leaves of violets and cut-leaf toothwort. Soon the woods will be alive with these early, quickly blooming flowers and more.

Birds called, frogs rattle-chirred, a fox slipped through the trees, a mourning cloak butterfly flittered. A red-tailed hawk feather lay on the ground, and what we thought was a last scattering of snow turned out to be tufts of fur, all that was left of some creature’s meal.

From a distance Townsend Woods SNA looks like bare tree trunks, but within the woods  a whole world is awakening. And we are so glad to see it.

Driving back home, we detoured briefly to check on a  new-to-us population of  snow trillium, a state special concern flower, that we’d seen last year in the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge.  What were the chances, we wondered, of seeing two early flowers so soon after snowmelt and on the same day?

Chances, it turns out, were good.  Along a hillside we found a few bright green clusters of snow trillium leaves, a few with petals opening, and one with its bright white flower already open to the sun. 

Welcome, spring.

Skunk Cabbage? Score!

March 11, 2023

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Snow sifts through the trees, piling on the deep drifts still on the ground, as we make our way down to Minnehaha Creek.   We’ve come  on our  first wildflower search of the year to look for the first wildflower of the year: skunk cabbage. Near the end of a long winter, we are hungry for wildflowers.

Behind us the falls roar.  Next to the path the creek flows fast and ice-free on its way to join the Mississippi River.  We cross a bridge and cautiously creep along the snow-covered boardwalk to the first opening in the snow.  Down in the wet ground two purplish pointed shapes poke up, curling around each other.  

Skunk cabbage!

A little farther along in open water on the creek side of the boardwalk we find at least a dozen more skunk cabbages emerging.  Each will eventually open to reveal a round yellow center covered with small white flowers that, so they say, give off a skunkish sort of smell we have yet to experience.

 It will be weeks before the next early spring flowers appear, the snow trilliums and hepaticas. Why is skunk cabbage so early?

Like many other woodland flowers, skunk cabbage needs to bloom and gather its share of sunlight before the trees overhead leaf out and shade the ground.  What makes skunk cabbage even earlier than other springtime wildflowers are its deep, extensive roots that provide starch for the plant to  generate its own heat–as much as 70 degrees–to melt its way up out of the frozen earth.  Snow doesn’t stand a chance.  

As we make our way back up the slippery slope of a road snow still falls, icing the bare branches of the trees. But we know that under the snow skunk cabbages, like us, are burning for spring.

A Bounty of Berries

December 2022

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Berries, berries, berries!  It’s what some flowers ripen into in order to make more flowers. 

We especially noticed berries this past fall at Badoura Jack Pine Woodland Scientific and Natural Area (SNA).  Most flowers were already bloomed out, but berries were plentiful—blueberry, bearberry, eastern teaberry (also known as wintergreen), snowberry –all thrive in the sandy soil under the open canopy of jack pines.  We’ve also seen both large and small cranberry this past year, the large cranberries in a bog and the small cranberries growing abundantly along a trail in the Superior National Forest.  

What exactly is a berry? We got as far as learning that all berries are fruit but not all fruit are berries before getting lost among pomes, stones, and aggregates. So we decided that for the purpose of this blog (and definitely unscientifically), berries are native fruit found in the wild with “berry” in their name.

Here are some of the berries we’ve seen in Minnesota this past year.

Two kinds of blueberry, lowbush and velvet-leaf, grow in Minnesota, both with delicate bell-like flowers that ripen into tasty fruit.  Blueberries are widespread in northern forests and especially abundant following a fire. A word of warning: it’s best not to fill your hat with blueberries, then, as you hurry not to be left behind by fellow canoeists, clap your hat onto your head, resulting in a net loss of delicious fruit. Trust me.  I know.

Minnesota also has three kinds of edible cranberry, and we’ve seen the two low-growing ones in bogs and swamps.   Both large cranberry and small cranberry ripen richly red and tartly tasty. Large cranberries, especially, gleam like fat red jewels on a rainy boggish day. 

Snowberry comes by its name honestly–small white flowers ripen into small white berries.

Bearberry flowers look like small, delicately pink bells.  They grow in dry, sandy, or rocky places over much of the northern half of the state and ripen into red berries. Bears are said to like them, but we can’t testify to this:  the only bear we’ve seen lately was in a hurry to cross a road in Wisconsin and not stopping to eat anything. Why was the bear crossing the road?  You know the answer.

The app on our phones identified a plant as eastern teaberry, but we’ve always known it as wintergreen when we’ve seen it in the north woods.  Its flowers, like other members of the heath family, are bell shaped, and the red fruit when it ripens stands out against the plant’s shiny green leaves.  

Bunchberry’s white blossoms, which are actually bracts (modified leaves) with tiny flowers in the center, ripen into bunches of red berries in the forests where it grows throughout much of the state. It’s not a member of the heath family like cranberry, blueberry, eastern teaberry, snowberry, and bearberry, but it is the world’s fastest plant.  When a pollinator or wind disturbs its flowers the pollen shoots out in half a millisecond.  Luckily for wildlife, the berries hold still.

Winter is here now, and the berries that haven’t been eaten will soon be buried berries, deep under snow. In the dark days before solstice, while we wait for the light to grow longer and next year’s wildflower season to grow nearer, we send you all a wish for joy, peace, an abundance of wildflowers…

…and a berry merry holiday.

%d bloggers like this: