Even though the weather can be cool, spring flowers are carpeting the forest floor and early butterflies are visiting them. WTIPs Jay Andersen talks with a local naturalist about ephemerals and mourning cloaks.
Chel Anderson is a botanist and plant ecologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. She lives here in Cook County and joins us periodically to talk about phenology or what’s going on in the woods right now. Welcome, Chel.
Now that we’ve had rain, things are really starting to green up, but why are spring flowers called ephemerals?
Great question. Spring ephemerals, they are a very unique group of plants that really have evolved to take full advantage of the intensity of the spring sun before the leaves come out on the trees and shrubs and before a lot of other plants have come up that would be taller than them and do a lot of shading of these spring ephemerals. So, they leap out of the forest floor with their leaves and start gobbling up sunshine as quickly and efficiently as possible so that they move very quickly into their blooms and then very quickly into seed and maturing their seed. Some of them actually do disappear. They truly are ephemeral in the sense that they’re here today and gone tomorrow. Right now there are carpets literally by the bazillions of spring beauties in bloom in the maple forest, in some moist areas that aren’t even forest but maybe dense shrub cover, but the best place and easiest place to find them is to go out into the maple forest and they’re just all over the place, huge carpets of them. They are blooming just above leaf litter on the forest floor and they will be here for another, oh, until the end of May, perhaps. There might still be a few in bloom, depending upon the weather and how things go. But, by the middle of June, you won’t be able to find those plants at all.
What other ephemerals are there?
Well, other ephemerals that aren’t quite as dramatic in terms of their briefness that are blooming right now would be the Dutchman’s Breeches, which people might be familiar with. Their flowers look like white pantaloons with little yellow ruffles at the bottom—very sweet. They also occur in large, sometimes very large patches, and are easy to see right now in bloom because there isn’t a lot to hide them. Other spring flowers that are taking advantage of the light in the same way would be our nodding and large flower trilliums, already in bloom, bloodroot, all those species are particularly good at capitalizing on this early spring sunshine before the other leaves come out.
One of my favorites: Wild Ginger. Talk about wild ginger and how it kind of hides the flowers.
Yeah, good one. Yeah, ginger are just beautiful, but easily overlooked, because, as you say, the pretty, velvety green leaf that lies very close to the forest floor actually hides the blossom, which is down at the very base. If you follow the stem of the leaf down, you’ll find the flower, which is a beautiful, deep maroon and shaped kind of like an orb, so very round but then open at the end with some flared fringe.
It’s chilly in the mornings. In spite of that, butterflies are around.
Yes. Oh, that’s always so much fun to see these butterflies and have them contribute to the color in the woods at this time of year. The first butterflies that show up in the spring here are butterflies that overwintered as adults, and there aren’t many species that actually do that. Some common ones that people may have already seen, or certainly could see anytime now, would be the morning cloak, which many people might be familiar with. So, this is a dark, when the wings are open, so the top side of the wings are a really dark, chocolately brown. There are some beautiful blue, kind of iridescent blue dots and then a beautiful thick, white margin on the wings. They overwinter under the bark of trees and that’s why they can come out so early, because they’re already ready to fly, right? They are physiologically able to protect the fluids in their cells from freezing to the point where it would kill the cells.
Exactly. Yes. Butterfly antifreeze. Other adults, other species that overwinter as adults would be the tortoiseshells, the Compton and Milbert’s tortoiseshells. There’s the silvery blue, and also the spring azure. These come out early not because they’ve overwinter as adults, they overwinter in the chrysalis. So, probably everybody’s probably familiar with chrysalis from seeing a Monarch chrysalis or whatever. Well, it’s the same type of thing. So, that’s the last stage before you emerge as an adult butterfly.
Chel Anderson, DNR botanist and plant ecologist. Thanks for helping us understand what’s going on around us this spring.
Great fun. Thank you.