One of our easiest to recognize wildflowers is Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum). Named for its fancied resemblance to a preacher (“Jack”) in his over-hanging pulpit, the name captures the imagination and makes the plant easy to remember. Like other members of the aroid family (Araceae) the inflorescence is comprised of two parts: a spadix that bears numerous small flowers and a modified leaf called a spathe that surrounds and partially encloses the spadix. In the case of Jack-in-the-pulpit, each plant bears either male or female flowers; the plants are dioecious.
Other aroids can have different arrangements of their flowers; for example the flowers of skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) are perfect, meaning that every flower has both male and female parts, while those of the European wildflower known as lords and ladies (Arum maculatum), are arranged with separate male flowers on the upper part of the spadix and female flowers on the lower part.
Columbine, with its nectar-filled red spurs, blooms just at the time that hummingbirds are returning from their winter sojourns south of the border—or is it the other way around? Do hummingbirds return just when the columbine begins to flower? From either viewpoint, it is clear that these two species have coevolved to synchronize their arrival in spring.
Hummingbirds need a plentiful source of nectar to provide the energy required for their frenetic life style. In return they incidentally transport pollen from one flower to the next ensuring that the columbine will be fertilized and set seed, thus perpetuating the species. Some hummingbirds will become summer residents here, while others will continue their northward migration as far as Canada, following the columbine bloom north.
Although many of our northeastern violets are lovely to look at, there is only one that is intensely fragrant—the tiny, white-flowered Viola blanda, commonly called sweet white violet. The delicate little flowers are well worth kneeling down and placing your nose right next to them to inhale their sweet scent.
While there, take the time to observe the structure of the flower. Like other members of its genus, the flowers have five petals, the lowest of which is modified into an extended spur to hold the flower’s nectar. Rather than aroma, most of our violet species attract pollinators with their pleasing colors of purple, white, or yellow. To reach the nectar in the deep spur requires a long proboscis such as that of butterflies. By patiently observing a patch of violets, you may be lucky enough to witness one of these pollinators visiting the flowers. In the case of the accompanying photograph, a West Virginia White butterfly visited several species of violets, among them this long-spurred violet, Viola rostrata. The same species of butterfly may also be seen depositing its eggs on nearby toothwort plants (Cardamine spp.), which serve as food plants for its larvae.
Sweet-scented violets have played a notable role in history. The favorite flower of Napoleon and his first wife, the Empress Josephine, was a European violet, Viola odora, which was especially prized for its lovely, sweet scent. Each year Napoleon would present Josephine with a bouquet of sweet violets on the anniversary of their wedding day. Violets, in fact, became a symbol of the Napoleonic reign. Despite Napoleon and Josephine’s great love, when Josephine failed to produce an heir after 13 years of marriage, Napoleon divorced her and married the young Marie Louise, who quickly bore him a son. However years later, when Napoleon died, his locket was found to contain a lock of Josephine’s hair and some pressed violets—a token of his lasting love for his first wife.
The leaves of Virginia bluebell sprout each spring in such deep shades of purple that they are difficult to see against the dark soil. As the leaves mature, the purple coloration is gradually lost until they become a soft green. Flowers, too, undergo a color change, from pink in bud to a lovely shade of blue shortly before the buds open.
The floral color change is not uncommon in members of this family, the Boraginaceae (borage family). Its members include forget-me-not (Myosotis spp.), viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare), and lungwort (Pulmonaria spp.), all of which have pink buds opening as blue flowers. The color change is due to changes in the pH of the cell sap, and, like some hydrangeas, plants growing in more acidic soils will have flowers of a deeper shade of blue. Members of the borage family also share in common the shape of their inflorescence, referred to as a scorpioid cyme for the way it uncoils like a scorpion’s tail. A true spring ephemeral, the leaves of Virginia bluebells turn yellow soon after the flowers have finished blooming and are gone by late June.
Of the many spring ephemerals cropping up in the Garden, the plant known as “spring beauty” in the genus Claytonia is one that can be seen without taking a walk through the woods. It is commonly found at the edge of woodlands, or along mowed roadsides. Like many spring ephemerals spring beauty flowers close at night and remain closed on overcast days. This tendency, combined with the plant’s grass-like leaves, make it easy to miss spring beauty if you do not look closely.
The beauty of spring beauty is best enjoyed by looking closely at the flowers with a hand lens. This allows you to appreciate the delicate pink lines that lead insect visitors to the source of nectar at the base of each petal. Insects–among them small bees, flies, and wasps–are further guided to the nectaries by a bright yellow spot; they are attracted by both nectar and pollen. The tiny flowers do not produce enough nectar to warrant a visit by the large queen bumblebees that fly in early spring, but small bees drink their fill and pack their pollen baskets with the anthers‘ creamy white pollen. The anthers themselves are pink and open before the female reproductive parts, thus helping to promote cross-pollination.
Both the scientific name, Sanguinaria canadensis, and the common name, bloodroot, of this spring wildflower are descriptive. The generic name Sanguinaria has its roots in the Latin word for blood, and bloodroot describes the root-like rhizome of this plant, which contains a bright red sap. Like other members of the poppy family, Papaveraceae, the sap throughout the plant is colored, which may be seen by breaking a vein in the leaf with your fingernail.
In the early spring wildflower parade, Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) follow closely on the heels of hepatica, blooming by mid-April. Dutchman’s breeches are one of the true spring ephemerals, plants that complete their entire above-ground life cycle within a period of only a few weeks and then disappear until the following spring. Of course, the underground portions live on, storing the carbohydrates manufactured by the leaves during the brief period before the trees have leafed out and shaded the forest floor. But spring ephemerals are not roadside plants.
To see most of our native ephemerals requires a pleasant walk in the woods. Ephemerals are plants that have evolved to live in the primeval conditions of Eastern North America—a land once covered by forest. They must take advantage of the short period of year when temperatures are warm enough and sunlight sufficient enough on the forest floor for the plant to accomplish three tasks: food production, reproduction, and storage of carbohydrates for the subsequent year’s growth.
Hepatica is the first “true” wildflower (that is, other than the rather unusual-flowered skunk cabbage) to bloom in the tri-state region. Its lovely flowers are a cheerful indicator that spring has really begun, but they can be surprisingly difficult to spot among the dull brown leaf litter. The flowers range in shades of pink, lavender, purple, and white, but they are small and low growing—plus they only open on sunny days. This strategy serves to conserve the flower’s pollen for days when its pollinators (usually small native bees) are likely to be flying.
It may be easier to find the distinctive leaves of hepatica; they are three-lobed, leathery, and often a deep burgundy color at this time of year. Hepatica retains its leaves for a full year, allowing the plant to photosynthesize on mild winter days and thus get a jump-start on the season. The appearance of the leaves is what has given this plant its somewhat unattractive common names, hepatica and liverleaf, both references to the imagined similarity of the leaves to a human liver. This fancied resemblance almost led to the plant’s demise during the 19th century.
For those thirsting for some sign of rebirth after a long, cold winter, you need go no further than the closest swamp. Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) has been up and in flower for over a month now. In fact, skunk cabbage may be found in flower as early as mid-February in this area. While many people may not consider skunk cabbage to be a ”true” spring wildflower, that is, one that is sweet, delicate, and pastel-colored, it is, indeed, one of our native wildflowers, and a plant deserving of our attention and admiration. The floral parts have a certain sculptural beauty, and the deep maroon color is striking in the otherwise bleak landscape.