Daily Archives: April 1, 2012

The first native spring ephemerals

Last week, the first native spring ephemerals were seen flowering here at Hawthorne Valley.

In our gardens, the introduced snow drops, crocusses, and even daffodils have been blooming for quite a while. And the introduced coltsfoot, who tends to be the very first wild growing herbaceous plant that flowers around here in spring, has also already been seen in bloom for several week, now.

Coltsfoot, which is closely related to the also introduced dandelions, but lacks the rosette of leaves at flowering time (the leaves emerge after the flowers have wilted and are roundish with a long stalk, very different from the leaves of dandelion), tend to grow around here either along scoured shores of creeks or along roadsides. It most likely was originally introduced for is medicinal properties, but now grows wild in patches of sandy or gravelly soil.

Flowering activity of the native plants in the woods has so far been limited to trees, such as the maples, elms, and cottonwoods, and shrubs, such as shadbush and leatherwood.

But last week, the spring ephemeral that reliably is the first native wild herbaceous plant to flower around here, started to sprout:

As if it knew that coming out of the earth so early, was a risky business, the leaf of bloodroot wraps around the flower bud like a protective coat…

Then, on a reasonably warm day, the flower bud rises above the protective leaf and the white flowers open for just one day. Bloodroot has an unusual number of white petals: often, there are 8, sometimes more. Like many other early spring flowers, bloodroot does not produce nectar, but native bees come to visit them to collect pollen. After one day of displaying its gorgeous flower, the petals drop and the seed capsule begins to develop. The leaves of bloodroot continue to grow for a couple of months, while the seeds are ripening. However, by mid summer the seeds have been dispersed and the leaves are wilting, which makes this species a true spring ephemeral.

Another early riser is this strange-looking, bluish, curled up shoot, emerging in floodplains and rich, moist forest areas:

While most of the plants of blue cohosh are still just emerging, a few individuals already present their small, star-shaped flowers, even before the finely divided leaves have completely unfurled…

Close-up of a blue cohosh flower. Again, this flower is unusual with its 6 sepals (big, purplish), 6 petals (small, half-moon shaped) transformed into nectaries, and 6 stamens (still immature, yellow globes). We are used to expect 6-parted flowers in the lily family, but blue cohosh is actually closely related to barberries and mayapple.

Another native spring ephemeral already in bloom in our region occurs in really wet places, such as swamps, seeps, and wet meadows:

This is marsh marygold, a member of the buttercup family.

Easily overlooked, but nonetheless already flowering, are several of our native woodland sedges.

This image is from our native plant garden at the Creekhouse. It is the rare native plantain-leaved sedge, which we have not yet found growing wild here in the valley, although we do know of a few locations where it grows in Columbia County.

The close-up of its flowers serves as an illustration of the sedge flowers found on several native woodland sedges early in spring. The conspicuous purple spikes on top contain the male flowers, as indicated by the yellowish stamens that protrude from the spike on the right. Further below, you can see inconspicuous white threads, which are the stigmas of the female flowers waiting for pollen to arrive. Obviously, these inconspicuous flowers don’t try to attract insects, but are wind-pollinated instead.

Many people have a first reaction indicating “danger” when they see the next plant at this time of the year:


However, in spite of the similarity with poison ivy, this toothwort is totally harmless and will soon open its 4-parted white flowers that give it away as a member of the mustard family.

A number of other spring ephemerals are “poking up”, but have not yet been seen flowering at Hawthorne Valley, this year.

These are the characteristically ribbed shoots of American (or “false”) hellebore, a powerfully poisonous plant that contains veratrine, a chemical used in commercial drugs that control blood pressure.

They should not be confused with the smooth shoots of the edible wild leek.

Wild leek is also known as “ramps” and has become very popular in fancy restaurants and amongst wild edible plant enthusiasts. If it is harvested with its bulb, the plant is killed and will not grow again next year. It will also not have a chance to contribute any seeds to replenish the population. As a consequence, many native populations are severely over-harvested and this already uncommon native plant is becoming rare in many places, including our valley. PLEASE, don’t harvest wild leek unless you are absolutely certain that you are in a very abundant patch and are the only person harvesting it this year…

Another plant that we rarely see in Columbia County, is emerging at this time of the year:

These are the finely dissected leaves of Dutchman’s breeches

and any day now, you will be able to see their unique flowers which are reminiscent of the “bleeding heart” of our gardens (this images is from last year, I have not yet seen fully opened flowers of this species, this year).

Dutchman’s breeches will soon open their uniquely shaped flowers. These flowers produce nectar in the two upper tips, waiting for insects with long tongues to come for pollination. However, if you examine a number of these flowers closely, you might find several whose tips have been bitten open by nectar robbers, who avoided having to squeeze through the tight opening of the flower and did not transport any pollen…

In many places, especially close to creeks, you will now notice these strangely mottled, very smooth, oval leaves emerging singly or in pairs:

They belong to trout lily, a plant that forms a vast underground root network and any day now will display its yellow, bell-shaped, typically 6-parted flowers.

This trout lily image is from last year, but shows you what to expect, soon…

Finally a request: If you live around Harlemville and observe the unfolding of spring in the Valley, please help us keep track of the dates when different species first come into bloom! You may enter them in the sign-up sheet posted behind the fish tank in the Hawthorne Valley Farms Store, or let us know with a phone call (518) 672-7994 or e-mail:



Posted by on April 1, 2012 in Nature