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Spring beauties carpet the forest floor

Virginia spring beauties opens their pink petals on a sunny May day. Note the thin leaves. (Photo by Larry Weber)1 / 2
Carolina spring beauty; note the thick leaves. These were photographed on a cloudy day and therefore the petals are closed. (Photo by Larry Weber)2 / 2

The colors in the woods of mid-May are amazing. The scene of tree growth is far beyond the bare branches of just a couple of weeks ago. Probably the most obvious is the greening that has suddenly appeared in the arboreal landscape. Different trees open their leaves at different times during this spring month, but as the foliage has advanced to the bigger trees, we are seeing a changed forest. Beginning with elderberry, gooseberry, raspberry and various honeysuckles, the leaves have been opening and growing. Next, the small trees of alder, ironwood, dogwood and hazel are greening. And then the quaking aspen regains its green. (Interesting to note that our other aspen, the bigtooth aspen, is one of the last to open its leaves in spring.)

Since these trees are so abundant in the Northland, we can't help but see them. The large oaks, maples and basswoods turn green later, but I expect by the time we exit the month, the entire forest will wear its summer attire. The woods will be green and shady.

Many of us may be glad to see this color to return to our numerous trees in the region, but for one group of forest residents, it may be a bit too soon. The wildflowers of the forest floor during the middle of May are in no rush for the shade to return. This small, widespread and diverse group of flowers thrives on this early spring sunlight that penetrates through the trees onto the ground at this time. In the coming shade, they will fade.

During my daily woods walks, I noted about 20 kinds of these plants in bloom in a variety of colors. About half had white petals: bloodroots, hepatica, wood anemones, wild strawberries, toothworts, trilliums, white violets and white trout-lilies. Their colorful petals and sepals ranged in number from three on the trilliums to eight on bloodroots.

White petals blended with their green leaves, but other colors were mixed in. Yellow trout-lilies, yellow violets and bellworts were among the debris of the forest floor while marsh marigold shows plenty of yellow in the wetlands. Purple violets held up its color while wild ginger kept this same color near the ground. Green flowers were even present and I found them on jack-in-the-pulpit and blue cohosh. (It's a green flower but called blue because of the stem).

The flower that stood out and added much to this vernal bouquet was the abundant pink spring beauty.

These plants are only a couple of inches tall. They grow with a pair of leaves branching from the main stem. Above the leaves is a cluster of flowers. Each blossom in this group is made up of five pink petals that have darker lines in the center. Each flower is only about one-half inch across. These small plants that grow and flower near the ground beneath the forest canopy may not seem like much, but when growing as they do in the hundreds or thousands, they are remarkable. When I get down and take a close look at these superb pink-petaled plants, I can see why they were given the name of spring beauty.

We in Northeastern Minnesota are the hosts to two species of these spring flowers. I have found the thin-leaf Virginia spring beauty in abundance in Jay Cooke State Park while the wide-leaf Carolina spring beauty is common along the North Shore.

Like many of the spring wildflowers growing here, the flowers close their petals at night and during cloudy or rainy times. But when the sun returns, so do the open petals, vying for insect attention.

Both species of spring beauties are ephemerals. This term means they have a short life span. Within a matter of three to four weeks they rise from underground, grow a stem, leaves and flowers, open these petals to get pollinated and then quickly fade in the shade.

Their growing site is quickly taken over by the ferns that thrive under the trees. Anyone returning to this huge growth of spring beauties in summer will not only not find any of these flowers, they would not even see any parts of the plants. In summer, it looks as though these prolific and beautiful flowers of the spring woods were not ever here.

But now, in mid-May, they bloom and add much delight to the spring forest floor flora. Among these ephemerals are some of the more shade-tolerant flowers that will take over here soon. I look around now and see baneberry, starflower and wild-lily-of-valley all growing here, too. They are not yet in bloom, but we will find their flowers during coming woods walks. And though they will not carpet the forest floor as spring beauties are doing in mid-May, they will continue this colorful woods bouquet in the coming weeks.

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.

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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