Spring Ephemeral Debate

Trout Lily turns its back on the debate.What got me started was the article I cited in my Trout Lily post, in particular, this passage:

The designation spring ephemeral has at times been applied erroneously to other early-blooming woodland herbs such as bloodroot, Jack-in-the-pulpit, wild ginger, hepatica, woods phlox, and various species of trillium. But these species don’t qualify for the ephemeral guild because they retain leaves and ripen fruit well after the leaf canopy closes. Slender fumewort (Corydalis micrantha) has also been cited as a spring ephemeral, but the plant doesn’t qualify since it normally grows on sandy roadsides and in fields or waste places where its life cycle is not correlated with a woodland canopy sequence. (George Ellison, Spring Ephemerals: Strategies Reconsidered, Notes of the Pennsylvania Native Plant Society, Jan-Mar 2007 edition:   Source)

Bloodroot says, 'Don't discriminate against me just because I take a little longer to make seeds!'



Perhaps I’ll simply put two sections in my next book:  True Ephemerals and Other Spring Flowers. Then I can include some of my other favorites of the deciduous woods!


Like Blue Cohosh, Google this plant and you’ll get lots of hits for “remedies” using preparations made from it…  and there will be controversy, too!  The juice from its roots (rhizomes, if you want to get technical) has been used as a body dye, but the juice can also kill skin tissue.  So… I wouldn’t recommend digging it up and painting yourself with it!  Even Peterson’s Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs, after listing a host of potential remedies warns, “Toxic!  Do not ingest.”

BloodrootBloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) flowers come up before or sometimes along with the leaves.  The leaves are rolled into a tube that surrounds the flower stem and will slowly unfurl as the flower grows taller.  It gets its common name from the blood-red juice that can be squeezed from its underground rhizomes.



I’m working on a new book called Race for the Sun.  My intent is to include all the flowers from the guild “Spring Ephemerals” that I find around here… in the order I find them.

I was very sad to learn that I can’t include Bloodroot… if I want to be a purist, that is.

Bloodroot does bloom in early spring before the canopy shades the forest floor… but because the fruit takes until June or so to mature and the leaves may remain until August or September, it does not technically belong in this guild.  So sad… It’s such a pretty little thing…  (I suppose I could change the focus of my book to any old spring flower in the woods that catches my eye…)

Bloodroot 4

Bloodroot 2 Bloodroot Range Map

Learn more:

UPDATE 4/23/08:  You MUST go see Jeremy Martin’s photo of Bloodroot.  It is stunning!  Click here.

I was wrong…

I got a botany lesson today.  Turns out my Sexy Red Maple post contained errors, which I will now attempt to correct.  (Many thanks to my botanist friend Suzi for setting me straight.)

Red Maple Blossom with Labels

I had assumed that the red parts were stigma and the yellow parts anthers.  It turns out there are some very small red parts that ARE stigma.  But the majority of the “red thingies” are actually anthers.  When the pollen is mature, they will burst open to reveal the yellow pollen.

She also confirmed cestoady’s comments on the meaning of “structurally perfect”.  Each flower does contain both male and female parts, but in varying degrees.  A “male” flower will still have an ovary – but it may not function.

There are more fascinating and complex behaviors, too.  It is not advantageous for flowers to self-pollinate as this doesn’t offer variety for the gene pool.  So the male and female parts may develop at different rates.  For example, perhaps the female parts on one tree won’t be ready to accept pollen until the male parts have already dispersed theirs…

As an Audubon student once said to one of our naturalists, “Plants are wicked cool.”

Trout Lily

For weeks I see this:

Trout Lily Forest

I get so accustomed to seeing no flowers that I forget to look for them.  Yesterday, though, a fairly large patch of bright yellow caught my eye!  The Trout Lilies are in bloom!Trout Lily

This flower has lots of common names.  Apparently some think the new purple shoots look like Adder’s Tongues.  Others think the underground corm looks like a dog’s tooth and therefore call it Dogtooth Violet (even though it is not in the violet family).  I’ve heard two rumors for my favorite common name, Trout Lily.  One is that the speckled design on the leaves resembles the design on Brook Trout.  Another is that the leaves come up just about the same time the Brook Trout start running in the nearby streams.

Trout Lily in the Sun

Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum) fascinates me for lots of reasons.

First, it is in the “guild” of flowers that botanists refer to as Spring Ephemerals.    The plants in this group are short-lived – ephemeral – sometimes only visible for one or two weeks.  They have very fast rates of photosynthesis allowing them to take advantage of the sun’s rays to store carbohydrates quickly before they are shaded by the deciduous trees under which they live.  Others in this guild include Spring Beauties, Dutchman’s Breeches, and Cut-leaved Toothwort.  Look for them now, for they won’t last long!

Second, they live in colonies.  It is rare to find a single Trout Lily.  Often, the forest floor is carpeted with the speckled leaves.  Trout Lilies spread vegetatively underground and colonies can be large and very old – sometimes as old as the trees that tower above them.

Trout Lily Range MapThird, reproduction is accomplished through a couple of means besides spreading underground.  There’s the “normal” way we learn about as early as grade school:  Flowers, which must be pollinated, produce seeds.  We call that “sexual” reproduction.  But in the event that pollinators are deterred by cold and rainy spring weather, Trout Lily has an “asexual” backup system.  Some plants may produce a fleshy bud called a dropper at the end of a long, fragile, white stem called a stolon attached to the base of the parent corm.


Fourth, seed dispersal is aided by ants.  This is really clever.  Each seed has a small protuberance called an elaiosome that contains oils and possibly sugars that are attractive to ants but has nothing to do with germination.  The ant carries the seed off to its nest, eats the elaiosome, then carts the seed off to the garbage dump section of the underground home where it is surrounded by other wastes.  Of course, one organism’s waste is another’s fertilizer.  (There are other flowers that use this trick…  some species of trillium, for example.)

Trout LilyFifth, the six regular parts aren’t petals OR sepals.  They are called tepals – undifferentiated forms between petal and sepal.  (Some sources say that the flower has three sepals and three petals.)  Either way, they look like they have six petals…  But they don’t.

Sixth, it can take up to eight years for an individual plant to reach sexual maturity.  If you look closely at a colony of Trout Lilies, you will find that only plants with two leaves will produce a flower.

Seventh, Trout Lily shows up in Peterson’s Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants.  The authors claim the greens can be boiled for ten minutes and served with vinegar and the corms can be boiled for twenty minutes and served with butter.

Trout Lily TrioAnd finally, it also appears in Peterson’s Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs with a variety of uses.

Learn More:

  • Most of the information for this post came from a fascinating article I found online from the Pennsylvania Native Plant Society.  (source)
  • Do your own Internet search and you will get lots and lots of hits for Trout Lily.  It seems to be a favorite subject among wildflower enthusiasts.

Do You Dare Use Herbs?

Coltsfoot Leaf by Jennifer SchlickEvery spring I decide that I’m going to try some of the wild edibles or wild medicinals that I read about…  I rarely follow through.  After a cough that lingered for three weeks, though, I’m seriously considering trying to make up some Coltsfoot cough syrup and drops for next winter!  The instructions are simple and straightforward and the information from all sources seems consistent…  Not so for all herbs!

Google “Spring Beauty” and the top ten sites are botanical in nature.  Google “Blue Cohosh” and you’ll have to look carefully to find a botanical site.  Most listings are about the use of this plant for medicinal purposes…  And let me tell you:  I wouldn’t dare use it, based on what I read.  The Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs uses an exclamation point inside a triangle as a symbol that means Caution.  The symbol appears with the listing for Blue Cohosh.

Blue Cohosh has been used for a variety of female conditions, which is undoubtedly why it is also sometimes known as Squawroot or Papoose Root.  Advice on the Internet is contradictory.  Here’s a site that says you can use it during pregnancy:

It may be used at any time during pregnancy if there is a threat of miscarriage.  Similarly, because of its anti-spasmodic action, it will ease false labour pains and dysmenorrhoea. However, when labor does ensue, the use of Blue Cohosh just before birth will help ensure an easy delivery.  In all these cases it is a safe herb to use.  (source)

And here’s one that says you should not use it during pregnancy:

Native Americans used Blue Cohosh to induce labor. It should not be used in pregnancy prior to the ninth month.  (source)

Blue Cohosh by Jennifer SchlickMedicinal uses aside, Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) is a very interesting plant to watch at this time of year.  When it first pushes through the leaf litter, it is so dark purple it blends in with the shadows; you might walk right past it and not even notice.  For example, I was so delighted to find this little plant on my walk today, thinking it was sort of a loner on the side of the trail.  When I finished snapping a few shots, I discovered a huge patch of them on the other side of the trail.  They’re easy to miss!

As the leaves unfurl the dark purple gives way to a lovely bluish-green as shown below in a photo by Jeremy Martin:

Blue Cohosh by Jeremy Martin

In a month, they’ll look like this:

Blue Cohosh by Jennifer Schlick

By July the berries will have set, and by autumn they will turn blue:

Blue Cohosh Berries by Jennifer Schlick  Blue Cohosh Berries by Jeff Tome
(Photo on right by Jeff Tome.)

Blue Cohosh Range Map from USDA


To photograph this flower now, you will need to get down on your knees.  By the end of its season, it could be one to three feet tall.  It likes “rich” woods in the eastern and central parts of North America.

Do you use wild herbs?  Tell us about it!

Butterflies in the Snow

Shagbark Hickory by Jennifer SchlickEver since I learned that Mourning Cloak butterflies (Nymphalis antiopa) overwinter as adults, I’ve searched for them (without success) in winter behind the loose bark of the hickories in a nearby woods.

I mentioned Wednesday that Mourning Cloaks treated me to a display of their courtship dances and even settled down to bask in the sun long enough for me to snap a few shots including this one:

Mourning Cloak by Jennifer Schlick




This morning I woke up curious about what the other stages of the Mourning Cloak life cycle look like… and thanks to the magic of the Internet found some wonderful websites with fantastic photos.  Links within the text below will take you the home page of the websites where I found the information.  Clicking on the photos will take you to the specific page that contains Mourning Cloak information and pictures.


Mourning Cloak Laying Eggs from University of California WebsiteThe University of California at Irvine has a site on the Natural History of Orange County. It is loaded with great information and beautiful photos on many topics, including the Mourning Cloaks in all stages of development, including all five instars of the caterpillar.  The egg picture at left is from their site.  The eggs darken over time and become red-colored.

Mourning Cloak Caterpillar from Nature Museum WebsiteThis caterpillar picture comes from the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago, Illinois.  The page that includes Mourning Cloak information also includes brief facts for other butterflies that can be found in the Chicago area.  The chrysalis below also comes from the Nature Museum website.

Mourning Cloak Chrysalis from NatureMuseum WebsiteThe most comprehensive text on the Mourning Cloak life cycle, written so even kids can understand, I found at NatureNorth.com, an online nature magazine from Manitoba, Canada. Seriously. There is no need for me to tell you a thing about this butterfly. Just click on over to NatureNorth!  I didn’t borrow a picture from them, so click here for the Mourning Cloak page.

I marvel every day at how the Internet has revolutionized learning.  How quickly I was able to find what I was looking for!  And now that I have a search image in my brain, my eyes will be scanning the woods for Mourning Cloaks in all stages of their development.  I hope I’m more successful than I was at finding an adult in winter!

Mourning Cloak Range MapUpdate (4/19/08):  I’m adding one more link and a map for Montucky.  You should be finding them where you live.  Wake up!  Pay attention!

This map is from the Butterflies and Moths of North America website.  It’s a pretty cool website, though I don’t understand why they have not included Canada as part of North America.  I guess they should have called it the Butterflies and Moths of the US and Mexico…  Hmmm….

And So It Begins…

HepaticaThe mad march of life…  Spring.  I took enough photos today for about a dozen posts.  The bottom of my pant legs are muddy and the knees smell like Wild Leeks.  Here are some highlights of the day:

  • A Great Egret teased visitors in the backyard at Audubon all day today.
  • I finally found Hepatica in bloom and got a few shots.
  • I respectfully asked a Mourning Cloak to sit still long enough for me to get a few photos.  After obliging, off it flew.  Quickly it found a mate and the two did a fast-paced aerial dance for me.  I said, “Thank you.” And one of them flew down, touched my shoulder, then flew off again.  I gazed in the direction it flew and saw:
  • Two Crows mobbing a Hawk right over my head.

Mourning Cloak

  • I respectfully asked an Eastern Comma to sit still for a photo, but he did not oblige.
  • Spring Beauties by the hundreds.
  • Blue Cohosh – just starting.
  • Yellow Violets.  (If they’re yellow, why are they violets?)

Round-leaved Yellow Violet

  • Leaves (promises) of many more wildflowers:  Toothwort (two kinds – some with buds ready to burst), Foamflower, Trout Lily, False Hellabore

Spring Beauty  Mourning Cloak Closeup

It sure was a pretty day!  I hope you had time to get outside!