Woodlands are magnificent places in early spring as ephemeral wildflowers blanket the forest floor. Here are just a few of the beauties you might see on your trek through the woods.
Skunk cabbage grows along streams and wetlands and is the first wildflower up in spring, sometimes even pushing through ice and snow. Because it grows so early and fast, temperatures inside the strange looking flowers can be 60° higher than the surrounding air temperature. The plant bears no resemblance when it first comes up to what it looks like just a month later when huge leaves up to three feet tall dominate the forest floor. When frost kills the leaves in fall, black fruits resembling little pineapples can be seen. The skunk cabbage name comes from the fact that the leaves smell like skunk when they are crushed. Although American Indians used many parts of the plant medicinally, it is best to leave it be – eating the leaves causes burning and inflammation and the roots are considered toxic.
This member of the buttercup family is found alongside streams, ditches, ponds and wetlands. It is also called “cowslip” because it often grows on hummocks and when cows came to streams to drink they would slip off the hummocks and into the water. Marigold comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning “marsh-gold” and Indians called marsh marigold “the flower that opens the swamps” because of its early spring bloom time. They certainly do sunny up a marsh in early spring. The Ojibwa mixed a tea made from the leaves with maple syrup for cough medicine. The same syrup was used as an antidote for snake venom. The leaf tea is a diuretic and laxative and root tea induces sweating. Intoxication results from eating raw leaves and flower buds but steaming or boiling the leaves and pickling the buds make for safe eating.
What a perfect name for this lovely flower found in wet, shady areas! Each flower has five white petals striped with pink. The pink veins act as runways to guide insects to the nectar in the yellow centers. You might walk right past a patch of spring beauty and not notice it unless you are looking closely for the one-inch flowers on thin stalks amid grass-like leaves. Underground are tiny potato-like tubers that Euell Gibbons called “fairy spuds.” Please don’t dig them up though; this plant is rare because of over-digging.
You might think the trillium is the most gorgeous bloom you’ve ever seen, until you see the dwarf trillium or the nodding trillium. You won’t be able to decide which is the most exquisite. Plants grow to 18 inches tall, and dwarf trilliums are tiny versions of the larger plants. Trillium is one of the first, of very few, plants to be sent back to the Old World to be cultivated in English gardens. It is also called “wake-robin” because it blooms early in spring. Trilliums are propagated when ants carry the seeds to their underground homes where they don’t eat them or do anything else to them other than plant them. Each trillium plant has three leaves; each flower has three petals. The three-parted trillium is widely viewed as a reminder of the Holy Trinity: God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Trillium is protected and threatened in Wisconsin and it is illegal to dig or pick them.
Jack-in-the-Pulpit is so named because of its odd-looking flower. An upright, tubular, purple and brown-streaked structure called a spathe encloses and forms a hood, the “pulpit,” over “jack,” a finger-like structure called a spadix. Above the pulpit are three-parted leaves that grow 1 – 3 feet tall. Weirdly, all jack-in-the-pulpits begin as male plants until sufficient nutrients are stored to produce fruit. Then they become female. Without the proper environment, they remain male. Later in the summer the “jack” turns into bright red clusters of berry-like fruits. Plants self-sow, so you’ll find baby jack-in-the-pulpits growing near the parent plant. Although it is also called Indian turnip because the Native Americans gathered its large taproot for food, jack-in-the-pulpit is not considered edible – its leaves, roots and berries contain calcium oxalate crystals that cause a burning sensation in the mouth.
Trout lilies are named for their mottled leaves that resemble the skin of trout. Other names are fawn lily, dog-tooth violet and adder’s tongue. Yellow, white or pink downward facing flowers with recurved petals rise above the leaves on single stems. Each plants has just two leaves and one flower and it takes seven long years for plants to mature enough to flower. Until then, each plant produces just a single leaf each year. The entire plant goes dormant and disappears by early summer. American Indians made a tea from trout lily roots to treat fevers. Iroquois women ate raw leaves to prevent conception. Leaves were also used to soften skin, but first may cause an allergic reaction so that doesn’t seem like a good use for them. Trout lily grows in dry woods.
It’s easiest to spot hepatica by first looking for its distinctive dried leaves from the year before that lay dead but still attached to the plant by their shriveled stems on the forest floor. Hepatica is also called liverleaf because of the shape and color of the leaves which overwinter a rusty brown. The name hepatica comes from the word for liver. Think of the liver diseases you’ve heard of: hepatic failure, hepatitis, etc. Flowers rise from the dead leaves and after breathtaking white, pink, lavender or blue flowers form, new green or purple leaves grow. After bloom time, stems of the pollinated flowers lengthen and droop to the ground where ants collect and disperse the seeds. The writings of Jakob Böhme (1575–1624) spread the Doctrine of Signatures which states that herbs resembling various parts of the body can be used by herbalists to treat ailments of those body parts. He suggested that God marked plants with a sign, or “signature,” for their purpose. Folk tradition holds that a tea made from hepatica leaves cures fevers, liver ailments and coughs. In 1883 there was a “liver tonic boom” and 450,000 pounds of dry hepatica leaves were imported to the United States. Hepatica can be found growing in dry woods.
Blood root has a pure white flower with a bright yellow center. It takes its name from the red juice in its stem and roots which has been used for dye, a decorative skin stain (early temporary tattoo!) and to eliminate warts. An early bloomer, blood root rises from nearly frozen soil. When they first come up, a single large leaf wraps around each flower stem like a cape keeping them warm. They unroll in the sun but close again to curl around the flower at night or on cloudy days. Leaves open horizontally to frame the bloom but after bloom they turn vertically on their stems. The fruit is a pointed, pod-like capsule which splits open to reveal many brown seeds. Each seed has a white, fleshy band called an elaiosome around it. This band is food for ants who carry the seeds away and disperse them. American Indians used the root tea for rheumatism, asthma, bronchitis, laryngitis and fever. Blood root is used commercially today in toothpaste and mouthwash as a plaque inhibitor. Don’t eat it though – it can cause tunnel vision and glaucoma.