Early spring flowers
In the best of times, and in the least best of times, nature’s seasonal rhythms provide a comforting sense of order. Spring wildflowers remind us that beauty is precious and worth taking note of. Enjoying flowers is an antidote to anxiety, focusing your attention on nature.
While social distancing—if you’re able to get outdoors—be on the lookout for native wildflowers, such as the ones described here, which are among the most commonly seen in early spring.
You don’t even need to visit a nature preserve to enjoy spring wildflowers—although it helps to be away from an expanse of treated lawns. All the flowers described here were recently seen roadside, walking in suburban Chester County.
Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) is a small pink or white flower with grass-like leaves. Spring beauty is a “spring ephemeral,” a group of wildflowers whose leaves emerge before trees leaf out to take advantage of bright sunlight. Typically found in or near woods or streams, it may also pop up in lawns (especially those that are remnants of natural areas). One of our earliest bloomers, the spring beauty is a transgender plant. The flowers start out as male, producing pollen, but after a day or so, they enter a female phase, unfurling a stamen and style to receive pollen. The flowers are pollinated by tiny flies and bees.
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) has glossy, daisy-like white flowers with a yellow center. It favors woods or wooded thickets. Its lobed leaves persist for months after the flowers fade, and the root and leaf veins exude a reddish sap when damaged—which explains its name. While bloodroot is pollinated by native flies and bees, it entices ants to disperse its seeds. Bloodroot seeds are coated with a nutritious substance that attracts ants to transport it to their nests, where they eat the coating and leave the seeds in the trash.
Common blue violet (Viola sororia) is the earliest flowering violet in our area. Its purple-blue flowers with white “throats”—held on delicate drooping stems above heart-shaped leaves—are a traditional symbol of modesty. It is found in wooded areas and stream banks, and can be naturalized in a shady garden. The flower is edible. Despite its lovely color and sweet fragrance, this violet (like the others in its genus) does not readily attract pollinators. Instead it self-pollinates by producing closed (“cleistogamous”) flowers in addition to the open blue ones; these appear at the base of the plant, well after the blue flowers.
Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) flowers in the midst of winter, but easily escapes notice until its huge green leaves appear in early spring. Found in wetlands or along streams, skunk cabbage produces a ground-hugging floral structure, with a swoosh appearance, in variegated burgundy colors. This floral structure is not the “flower” itself, but the hood or “spathe,” within which tiny flowers form on a many-faceted orb called a “spadix.” Male flowers appear first, then female. The flower emits an odor of carrion that attracts flies to pollinate it. Look for the hooded spathes at the base of the giant leaves, which unfurl gradually and last for months. And yes, when crushed those cabbage like leaves do smell skunky.
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)—a shrub, not a wildflower—is common in wooded areas and thickets. Spicebush is much less showy than the widely planted yellow forsythia shrub—which is also flowering now. It bears small green-yellow flowers along its delicate branches in early spring. Its pollinators are solitary bees, ladybugs and beeflies. In the fall it bears bright red berries. Early European settlers, who ground the dried berries for spice, gave it the common name. Spicebush twigs and leaves are also fragrant (they make a pleasant tea), so deer tend to leave it alone. One creature that loves the leaves is the caterpillar of the spicebush swallowtail butterfly. Seeing this large yellow butterfly later in summer is like getting a gift from the spicebush, sending beauty into the world long after its flowers have disappeared.
Photos by Brandywine Conservancy staff