“One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of a March thaw, is the spring.
A cardinal, whistling spring to a thaw but later finding himself mistaken, can retrieve his error by resuming his winter silence. A chipmunk, emerging for a sunbath but finding a blizzard, has only to go back to bed. But a migrating goose, staking two hundred miles of black night on the chance of finding a hole in the lake, has no easy chance for retreat. His arrival carries the conviction of a prophet who has burned his bridges” -Aldo Leopold-
Walking into the Forest in spring is like a game of hide and seek, where flowers are always hiding and you are forever seeking. A short walk through the warming sunlight can quickly turn into a hunt for the tiniest of springs flowers hiding in the leaf litter of a thousand autumns past. A splash of yellow here, a drop of purple there each pushing its way into the light. Once you start noticing the paint drops of spring you’ll begin to see them everywhere and it will seem as if a camouflaged rainbow was pulled from the sky then scattered across the forest floor.
The earliest indicator that winter is waning and spring is around the corner is the arrival of Skunk Cabbage. Skunk cabbage is a plant that loves swampy wet areas and as you may guess from its name it smells like the musky spray of a skunk. Even when the snow is still on the ground Skunk Cabbage will heat itself up through a process called thermogenesis and melt its way to the sunlight. The young plant sticks up like a short spiraling spike of purple and green swirls, stark against the white of snow. Later in spring it will begin to leaf out becoming a large leafed cabbage like plant that is said to be a favorite food of bears coming out of hibernation.
One of the earliest wild flowers to show its self upon springs arrival is Coltsfoot. Each of its flowers is like a small yellow sun pushing through the leaf litter announcing the return of warmer days. Coltsfoot is somewhat of an oddity among plants as it produces flowers before it produces leaves. The leaves show up sometimes a good month after it has flowered.
Daffodils are another herald of the changing seasons. Though they are not technically a flower of the forest, daffodils can often be found there. For me they are an indicator species, marking places of human life that once were but are no more. Daffodils are a perennial/annual that comes back year after year in and around the place that a human hand once planted them. Where you find daffodils in the forest you can almost always find the remnants of human habitation, an old stone foundation, a fallen down spring house or broken milk bottles. Each clump of daffodils is a glimpses into the past.
If you wander the forest long enough you are bound to encounter Bloodroot. With a little patience you can watch its ritual of spring greeting unfurl. As the days slowly warm Bloodroot pushes its way up from beneath the earth up through the leaf litter. As it reaches skyward you will see that it comes prepared for the season wrapped in the warmth of its own leaf blanket. Soon enough its large leaf unfolds
As the season gets into full swing more early spring wildflowers start to arrive, each one taking advantage of the sun that hits the forest floors before the trees begin to leaf out. The white flowers of Cutleaf Toothwort, Rue Anemone and Hepatica soon give way to many varieties of Trilliums each with its own color palette ranging from pale yellow to bright red. If your lucky you may encounter the Painted Trillium whose white flower petals looks as if they were each kissed by bright pink lips. Trilliums are a forest treasure that take their good old time to mature, often growing for 7 years before producing a flower.
Another of my favorite spring arrivals is the Mayapple. If you happen upon a healthy forest Mayapples can often be seen covering the entire forest floor. A sea of shiny green umbrellas casting shadows upon the ground. Their cream colored flowers mature into small greenish yellow fruits in summer, a delightful snack for the creatures who live in the forest.
As you leave the forest keep your eyes peeled on the edges where the forest and field meet, it is here where you’ll find a variety of spring flowers such Purple Dead Nettle, Chickweed, and Dandelion. Many of these edge dwellers start to show themselves even when the air is still frosty, taking advantage of the open sunlight. Dandelion and Chickweed are often seen blooming throughout the winter as the snows come and go, their flowers giving us hope for springs arrival on even the coldest of days.
This year as spring begins to blossom and the sunny days beckon you to the forest for exploration keep on the look out for these and many other early spring flowers that live among us. Soon enough they will show themselves to you.
Some other Spring wildflowers to look for: Dutchmans Breeches, Wild Ginger, Ladyslipper Orchids, Spring Beauty, Squirrel Corn, Virginia Blue bells, Trout Lillie’s, Jack in the Pulpits and many more.