Spring wildflowers mature now
As we travel on our annual trip around the sun, we have four astronomical markings of note: the summer solstice, the day of greatest amount of daylight; the winter solstice, the time of most darkness; and the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, where the amount of light and darkness are equal.
On this journey, we are now at the time of the autumnal equinox, the beginning of fall. From now until the vernal equinox of March, the darkness each day will be longer than daylight. With the light of sol lessening each day, nature goes through quite an adjustment and we see these changes daily. Sometimes they are very obvious.
When adapting to the coming cold, Northland animals have four alternatives. Some will migrate. Most notable are the birds, but also monarch butterflies and green darner dragonflies. Living where we do, we see this movement in many kinds of birds from the large raptors and water birds to small songbirds.
Besides the migrants, others will hibernate. Though late September is still too early for such a long sleep, those taking this option are preparing for it, especially reptiles, some insects and mammals such as ground squirrels. As a third alternative, some kinds, mostly insects and spiders, are faced with the end of their life and need to lay eggs before succumbing to the cold. And finally, there are many mammals and birds that will thicken their coats and maybe change their diet, but will stay and remain active throughout the Northland winter.
Plants have different responses. Any plants that have survived here for a few years or more are hardy enough to cope with the chill. Lots of trees, the deciduous ones, drop their leaves as a way of keeping from drying up in winter. The conifers mostly keep their numerous thin leaves (needles). I find that most of the diverse wildflowers that fill the woods and fields in our region are perennials, living several years or more. What we see above the ground is largely dead, but roots and underground stems (rhizomes) remain alive beneath the cold.
If the plants have a flower, we can expect that it also produces seeds in some form. The seeds could grow with a fluffy attachment that allows wind travel as a means of dispersal. Or the seeds could get caught on us or other animals as we pass by. Animals, birds, mammals and humans can also spread the seeds when seed containers, fruits or berries, are growing on the plant. To ensure that they get noticed by animals, the fruits and berries often have bright colors.
This became apparent to me recently while walking the September woods. As I looked among the abundant fall fungal display here and noted the various shapes and colors on these strange growths, I saw other colors as well. The fall wildflowers of goldenrods, asters and sunflowers are mostly blooming in the open spaces, though a few large-leaf asters and zig-zag goldenrods were here, too. Higher in the woody trees were yellow leaves of ashes, birches and poplars while reds of maples, dogwoods and cherries were glowing along the woods' edge.
But close to the ground, there were other bright reds in the forest as well. Here on the forest floor, among the fungi, logs and leaves, I saw red fruits and berries of plants that I recognized as being spring wildflowers. On this date, being so close to the autumnal equinox, some of the wildflowers from early in the season were revealing the end of their cycle and their way of coping with the coming cold.
The large three-leaf trilliums, in this case the nodding trillium, now held a large red fruit, shaped something like that of a strawberry. Last May these plants were commonly seen with white flowers of three petals. Also along the woods trail was a plant holding several red cherry-like berries, the rose twisted stalk. Smaller, but also here, are the tiny red berries of wild lily-of-the valley (Canada mayflower). And nearby was a tall baneberry with a group of red berries. All of these flowered in late May.
But maybe the one that could not be overlooked was that of the jack-in-the-pulpit. We may remember this flower of the May woods as the plant with the strange-looking green-purple flower, looking something like a miniature person in a pulpit. With all these flowers gone now, the mature plant holds a cluster of bright red berries, not looking anything like that of the spring flower. Other spring plants here now, not as brightly colored, include the blue berries of blue-bead lily (Clintonia), the pinks of false Solomon's seal, the tiny gray berries of starflower and the pods of columbines.
As we begin fall, we're not likely to think of spring wildflowers, but the plants are here in the woods and remind us of what was and what is to come again.
Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” Contact him c/o firstname.lastname@example.org.