by Sarah (former Allen County Parks Outdoor Educator & Volunteer Coordination)
Maybe the songs of frogs don’t define the arrival of spring for you. There is no denying, however, that wildflowers herald the end of winter. It is so exciting to see green pushing its way up through leaves and dirt, and slowly spreading along twigs on trees and shrubs. While yellow daffodils may be appearing in your yard, it is white that’s blooming in the forest.
Christian Schult, our assistant director of education, brought in the first wildflower of the year a couple of weeks ago. It was a tiny mostly white blossom nearly lost at the tip of a short green plant. It has been identified as both pepper-and-salt and harbinger-of-spring, but common names make everything confusing (as opposed to scientific names in Latin). It is a dainty little flower, and a joy to see after such a cold and snowy winter.
Not too far behind is my mother’s favorite wildflower, Dutchman’s breeches. Probably the most distinctive flowers in the woods, they look like a string of puffy white pantaloons, trimmed with yellow, hung one-by-one down a slender green stalk, “waistband” down. These oddly shaped flowers are actually in the poppy family. The flowers look nothing like poppies (almost more like orchids), but the feathery leaves are almost reminiscent of ornamental poppy leaves (ok, you’ll have to stretch your imagination a bit).
Bloodroot flowers have finally arrived. This is a plant you should look up in a field guide if you are not familiar with it. The leaves are very distinctive; almost kidney shaped, but with a couple of deep, rounded cuts from the outside edge, creating large lobes. The flower itself is a decent-sized white flower, with eight to ten petals and a yellow center. This flower looks nothing like Dutchman’s breeches, but is also in the poppy family. If you’d really like to understand the plants in Papaveraceae, the poppy family, check The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers (ISBN 394-50432-1). Bloodroot may sound a little gory, but it describes a fascinating identifying characteristic of this plant. The root is almost tuber-like, and when you break it, the plant juices that drip out are an orangy-red color. When smeared on the skin, it looks like blood (be warned- it stains!). This plant is an exciting and somewhat rare find, so be sure to simply enjoy it only be looking at it.
Yet another white flower that pops up early in the spring is the appropriately named spring beauty. A five petaled flower with accents of pink, this little gem has long, entire (smooth-edged), grass-like leaves. I might also add that it is rather tasty. The leaves would be delicious in a salad, for they taste like fresh, strong spinach. I’m told the flowers are also quite nice, and can even be a little on the sweet side if you can find a nectar filled blossom. It is not in the poppy family (it’s a purslane).
Be careful not to confuse spring beauties with cut-leaved toothwort. Another strange name, probably with folk medicine roots (anything ending with “wort” is rumored to heal the body part it is paired with. For example, “toothwort” might help with toothaches, “liverwort” might help your liver, etc. Will these really work, and are they even edible? Better double check with your doctor). The leaves are indeed deeply cut, or lobed, and have strongly toothed, or pointed, edges. The leaves are located a good ways up the stem, while the leaves of spring beauties grow up from the base. The flowers themselves are similar, except that cut-leaved toothwort has only four petals. In case you’re wondering, toothwort is a mustard.
So many flowers, so little time! Within a couple of weeks there will be an entirely new crop of flowers blooming. The best way to learn to identify wildflowers is to have someone point directly to the flower under your nose, and share a bit of its natural history with you. If you can gather together a group of at least five people, the education department would be happy to give you a personal tour of this spring show. Give us a call at 449-3180, and we’ll take you out in the county park of your choice, for $2 per person. Come out and enjoy the show!