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Hepaticas are the first spring wildflowers

A growth of purple hepatica in full bloom, a spring wildflower of the April woods. (Photo by Larry Weber)

Spring continues to unfold in the Northland. During March we experienced warming temperatures and left the subzero readings behind. Rain showers became more common; melted puddles became a part of the scene. Bare ground, covered by snow for weeks, could be seen again and the first chutes began to appear above ground.

Now in April, this trend continues. March is a month of winter and spring, but April, even if we get snow — don't forget the nearly 51 inches of snow in 2013 — is a month of spring. It is now in April that melting and thawing, begun earlier, becomes more likely. And even if we get some cold and snow, the long days tell us that spring will not be stopped.

Warm temperatures melt the snow and ice and the moisture feeds the newly emerged greening plants. We probably notice this greening first out in the open where the grasses form new blades that reach up from the soil, pushing through the old grass from last year that has become brown under the snows. Also in the open sites, frequently nearby our houses or other buildings, the fast-growing and fast-blooming crocuses open their colorful petals in the vernal sunlight. And here, too, the opportunistic dandelions also welcome spring. Both are quickly discovered by newly awakened and emerging bees and butterflies.

At the bases of trees where the snow-melt earlier formed circular open spaces, the mosses that were under the snow all winter but still remained green are now forming new green leaves and fruiting bodies. Indeed, I think that it is these minute plants of the forest floor and on rocks and tree trunks that begin the greening of the woods.

Though still not opening green leaves — that is to take place later in this month or the next — many trees now hold hotdog-shaped catkins turning yellow with maturing pollen. Alders and hazels begin this, but now birches and ironwoods continue the trend. Silver maples with pistillate (female) and staminate (male) flowers reveal their entrance into spring. Soon red maples will add similar flowers to the scene.

As the spring starts to come about in the woods, I like to go out to find the first of the spring wildflowers. Within the deciduous forests, the plants growing in this niche occupy a limited time slot. For months the forest floor was covered with snow and within maybe a month or six weeks, they will be in the shade of the new green canopy overhead. Plants living here need to grow quickly from beneath the protected soil and form leaves, buds and then flowers as they take advantage of the sunlight that penetrates through the trees at this time. During some springs, this time of maximum growth may be only a couple of weeks long.

A walk in these woods in early to mid-May is a floral delight. Perhaps as many as 20 kinds of spring wildflowers will use these available sunny and warming conditions to grow and bloom. These include the earliest ones and the later more shade-tolerant ones that may linger into June.

The bouquet consists of bloodroot, spring beauty, trout-lilies, Dutchman's breeches, violets, toothwort, ginger, marsh marigold, strawberry, wood anemone, bellworts, trilliums, baneberry, jack-in-the-pulpit, columbine, sarsaparilla, starflower, wild lily-of-the-valley and corn lily. They may all be in the woods that I now wander through in early April and the coming weeks. But as I walk here now, I search to find the first ones. And without exception each year, the first to flower is one called hepatica.

Typically, these small plants have six petals (I have seen several variations to this number) that can range from white to purple. Blooming very quickly after the snow goes, the plants may hold the flowers above the hidden leaves. But it is the leaves that give the name to this first flowering plant. The word "hepatica" refers to liver. Early naturalists who named the plant thought that the three lobes of the leaves reminded them of our liver. While other spring wildflowers need to grow new leaves to function in the April sunlight, the hepatica kept its leaves all winter. Being buried under the snow, these leaves lost their greenness and now look purple. Soon they will become green again.

I have seen them open their petals for the first time as early as late March and as late as early May, but regardless of its opening date, hepatica is always the first of the woodland wildflowers to show its blooming, maybe on average about mid-April. Once the hepaticas open, others are quick to follow. Each woods walk among these unfolding spring wildflowers brings more news of the vernal forest.

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

A growth of purple hepatica in full bloom, a spring wildflower of the April woods. (Photo by Larry Weber)

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

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