The snow is gone, the taps are pulled, but trees won’t break bud for a few weeks yet. Step into Vermont’s woods during this time, keep your eyes on the ground, and you might be rewarded with a delicate riot of fresh color unfurling from the drab forest floor. Tiny pink and white spring beauties, elegant trout lilies, and ethereal bloodroot seem to emerge overnight. Springtime brings a particular, and delightful, abundance of wildflowers in the woods. Why?
Here’s the thing: it takes energy to make flowers and fruits and seeds, and it takes energy to make food. And energy comes, ultimately, from the sun. Sunlight on the forest floor is abundant in April and early May, before the leaves appear on the trees up above. By the time the trees are fully leafed-out, as much as 99% of the sunlight that hits the tree canopy is trapped there—it never makes it to the forest floor.
Plants photosynthesize, that is, make food that they store in their roots and other underground parts, using energy from the sun and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. And they use this stored food to make flowers and fruits. Spring is a great time to do all of this.
The plants work diligently, yet mostly out of sight
Some of the spring wildflowers are called “spring ephemerals,” meaning that they seem to be short-lived. In truth, they are not short-lived at all. Most of them are perennials, living for many years. But they are not always easy to see. For most of the year, the plants live only underground.
Dutchman’s breeches, for example, appear in lush profusion on the forest floor in April, yet there is no evidence of them above ground by late June. Everything they are is underground by that time, in the form of delicate, pink bulblets. These bulblets are dormant through the summer, but they get very busy in the fall, converting starch to sugar and creating the flower and leaf buds that will be ready to open as soon as the ground warms up in spring.
Squirrel corn is a closely related plant: it has yellowing flowers with rounded lobes, and a yellow, corn-like underground bulblet. Trout lily has a similar story. Spring beauties are a common and favorite spring wildflower, also appearing in late April through early June. Their flowers and their leaves, too, are gone by July.
Some plants prefer long breaks before developing flowers
Some other plants are only partly ephemeral—they do some of their work early, but save some for later in the summer, when the forest floor is more shady. Wild leeks are like this—their leaves are out in profusion right now, making food and storing it in their bulbs. The leaves will be gone in a month, but later in the summer their round flower clusters will appear.
These plants work steadily (and above ground) throughout summer
Other plants produce flowers in early spring, but their fruits might take a while to mature, and their leaves expand and continue to photosynthesize—though slowly—throughout the summer. Blue cohosh, hepatica, and trillium, and bloodroot are examples of such plants.
The whole blue cohosh plant is deep purple-blue early in the season, but turns green as the summer matures. Hepatica is one the first wildflowers to appear on the forest floor in spring.
White trillium can be abundant in forests in western Vermont; it appears in late April through early June. Bloodroot emerges early in spring, and each delicate flower is protected from the cold by its enfolding leaf. Even though the flower does not produce nectar, pollinators are still drawn to its pollen.
Top photo: bloodroot by David Middleton
This educational post is part of our #StayGroundedVT campaign to help Vermonters stay connected to nature, find tools to teach their kids about nature, and support farms producing local food. Follow us on Facebook and Instagram to get the latest!