Spring time is synonymous with flowers. The smaller spring-time plants produce a tremendous variety of colors, shapes, and textures within the span of a few weeks. These plants thrive in the period after things begin to warm up, protecting the plants from frost damage, and before the forest canopy fully develops, shading them out. Often seeds have been waiting since the prior spring for the right conditions to sprout and continue their life-cycles.
Native varieties of flowers offer an impressive portfolio of benefits to the native pollinators that have co-evolved with them. These native plants often bloom in succession, allowing for food to remain plentiful for the pollinators that depend on them. Coordinating their calendars aside, natives are often adapted to fit specific pollinators and seed-spreaders such as changing their flower shape so that pollinators must crawl into them, exposing more of their bodies and making it possible to gather as many bits of pollen as possible.
Here are some spring flowers to look for this weekend and throughout May:
The rue anemone are some of most common and most gorgeous early spring flowers. Rue anemone blooms throughout the spring and makes for a wonderful garden plant as it fills in with broad green leaves before unveiling a flurry of white flowers. Many flowers related to the anemone produce smaller, and more delicate plants, but the rue anemone is much larger and more robust.
Trillium comes in many colors with whites and purples being the most common to see natively in our region. The triple-petaled flower often grows in patches with different members of the colony blooming sporadically throughout the spring. Interestingly, trillium are primarily dispersed by ants so their patches are easily wiped out as the plant naturally does disperse its seeds widely.
Another three-leafed plant, the jack-in-the-pulpit, can be easily confused for a trillium in its early stages. Jack-in-the-pulpits are incredibly fragile plants ecologically. While the stalks and flower are rather robust, it takes the plant several years to establish before it flowers, and in that time the young leaflets can be munched, mulched, or otherwise out-competed. After they are established they are a little tougher to kill, as they prefer shady and wet areas with acidic soils that would otherwise prove too difficult for other flower species to thrive. Individual plants can survive up to 25 years in these conditions, but only if they survive their first two.
Wild columbine is a vibrant plant that produces a truly dramatic inverted flower that towers over the base plant on spindly maroon stalks. Though you would never guess, it is a member of the buttercup family. Columbine form aggressive patches that reliably self-seed year-to-year with each plant usually serving two years. Once you have identified a colony, it is very easy to return to that same spot each year to find the little flowers nodding back to you. Small plants are intrinsically the ones associated with flowering, but many trees also flower in the spring. In fact, trees provide significantly more food for pollinators per ground area than most smaller plants. Most species of dogwood produce small white flowers, but the eponymous flowering dogwood produces the flower most associated with the family. Cherry trees, too, provide ample flowers at the onset of spring. Some ornamental varieties exist near more landscaped areas, but the native species can create a similar effect to these when they begin to shed their petals shortly after the start of spring. The majority of flowering trees produce subdued green or just plain tiny flowers that while not showy perform the same duties as their smaller, prettier relatives.
Many of these early-blooming species can be found on trails throughout our region. In wild places like the Spring Creek Canyon many of these plants form established colonies that may have to compete with introduced invasives, like garlic mustard or dame’s rocket. Jack-in-the-pulpit, for example, has a couple established plants along the trail but encroachment of invasives threatens to stifle any further spreading. Other areas actively manage or cultivate gardens featuring some of these native plants. The Hartley Wood behind The Arboretum at Penn State and Millbrook Marsh both feature native plants often with placards making identifying them much easier. A demonstration area such as the Barrens to Bald Eagle Wildlife Corridor is managed to feature dozens of native plants.
The spring flowering period for many species can be as short as a handful of days, often transitioning to seed before others have produced flowers. These transitions make revisiting the same trail a treat, as new blooms can popup after a particularly wet or warm series of days.