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Shade-tolerant flowers now bloom in woods

A starflower blooms in the shady woods. Note the eight petals; seven or six may also be present. (Photo by Larry Weber)1 / 2
Wild lily-of-the-valley (Canada mayflower) now in bloom. Note the flowers are on plants with two leaves. (Photo by Larry Weber)2 / 2

Walking in the woods of early June is an amazing experience, quite a change from a month ago. Now this site is shaded under the thick arboreal canopy that has grown during the last couple of weeks. Before these leaves emerged, the forest floor was filled with the sun-loving and quick-growing spring ephemerals.

Spring beauties, trout-lilies, bellworts, hepatica and bloodroot that were so thick then have faded now. A few of the spring flowers from those May days linger a bit longer and I find some large-flower and nodding trilliums, wild strawberries and marsh marigolds still blooming among the thick green foliage now present. But instead of walking in a forest devoid of wildflowers, a whole new group has taken the place of those earlier ones. The shade-tolerant plants are now flowering.

As I step from the house during an early June walk, I'm quickly greeted by a plethora of bird songs. It sounds like nearly all of the resident avian neighbors have returned from their winter wanderings and are proclaiming territorial ownership to their nesting sites. I hear a couple of kinds of flycatchers with their cousins, the kingbird, phoebe and wood peewee. Red-eyed and yellow-throated vireos sing from high in the trees while wood and hermit thrushes and veeries call low. As I walk further in the scene, I note the loud songs of the Baltimore oriole, rose-breasted grosbeak and scarlet tanager. A catbird sings from the undergrowth and a hummingbird comes by. From the nearby lake, I hear the loon while ruffed grouse and woodpeckers make noises of their own. All of this is mixed with 10 kinds of warblers that I expect will nest here. But the birds are not alone. I'm escorted by many of the newly matured mosquitoes.

Despite all of this from the animal world, I am more captivated by the thick green world of plants now growing in the woods. I find about a dozen kinds of spring wildflowers in bloom that were not here a couple of weeks ago. I refer to this as phase two in the spring flora. These are the plants that grow and flourish in the shade of the trees. During the last 10 days of May the leafing-out begun earlier reached full growth. Now as I walk here, maples, oaks and basswood hold fully developed leaves. And even in this sunny morning, the woods is much darker.

The wildflowers that I now seek are those that have adapted to life in the shade and they provide plenty of colorful petals. Tallest are the baneberry and sarsaparilla. Both have clusters of white flowers. While the former are held up above the leaves, the latter are below.

Other wildflowers in the forest now are starflower, wild lily-of-the-valley (Canada mayflower), bunchberry and pale vetchling. While the Clintonia (bluebead lily) holds up groups of yellow flowers, those of meadow-rue, Solomon-seal, rose twisted-stalk and jack-in-the-pulpit are not as colorful, often greenish.

Though these plants are all a delight, it is the columbines that reveal the most color. These tall plants with the inverted red and yellow flowers thrive in the June woods among the trees. But I have often seen them in sunlight growing on cliffs as well.

The ones most abundant now are the starflower and wild lily-of-the-valley. (I don't think they look that much like the domestic lily-of-the-valley, so the name Canada mayflower may be better.) Both are short and easy to miss, but now with so many blooming, they show up well.

Starflowers stand only about 4 inches tall. Leaves are in a whorl, growing from a single spot with the white petals rising above. Starflower is one of the few flowers in the Northland to have seven petals, though eight and six can be common, too.

Wild lily-of-the-valley abounds on the forest floor. Leaves are shiny and oval, nearly heart-shaped. Most of the leaves in these woody sites are alone and do not produce flowers. Their blossoms develop in a vertical spike on a stem above the two leaves. These two plants often grow in patches with each other, turning the forest floor white.

For those who want to do a bit more searching, a few kinds of orchids also bloom at this time in the region. Most notable, due to their large size and bright colors, are the yellow ladyslipper orchids. In the bogs and conifer woods, the pink ladyslipper orchid (moccasin flower) reveals its gorgeous flowers. But orchids can be more drab and smaller. In the deciduous woods that I walk through, I sometimes find a thin yellow-green early coralroot. With this size and these colors, it is easy to walk by. All these florals grow among the thick and tall green ferns.

These shade-tolerants also have a rather short season. Many of the wildflowers of June will soon be seen in the open fields and roadsides. A few wetland flowers appear now, too. Yellow pond-lily, water calla and iris each add colors to these water worlds. Whether we are on a bird walk or a bug walk, getting out now to see the thick growth on the forest floor with the phase-two, shade-tolerant flowers in early June is well worth the walk.

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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