Story and photographs by Joan Herrmann
Whereiwander… along the roadsides, in the woods, the bogs and all the treasured places that I travel in spring new life is emerging. Wood frogs and Spring Peepers are singing. Wildflowers are appearing, migrating birds are returning and “snowbird” friends are coming home. For me, it is a time of light, renewal, and joy especially when I find the first blooming spring ephemerals. The ephemerals are the perennial wildflowers that emerge quickly before the canopy of leaves reduces the amount of sunlight. Their life cycle takes place in a matter of several weeks; in which they develop stems, leaves, and flowers. They bloom quickly and produce seeds, for some their leaves wither leaving only the underground parts which may be roots, bulbs, rhizomes, or corms.
Most wildflowers have many common names, for example, Erythronium americanum is known as Trout Lily, Adder’s Tongue, and Dog’s Tooth Violet. It is known as Trout Lily because it is in the lily family, it usually blooms close to trout fishing season and its leaves are speckled like a trout. The name Adder’s Tongue because of the protruding stamens which reminds some people of a snake’s forked tongue. The name Dog’s tooth violet, because its corms (underground bulbo-tubers for storages of food) resemble a dog’s canine tooth. Trout Lily is best viewed through the lens of a camera, or by kneeling or bending down to see it. A magnifying glass or scope will give you an even better inspection. Yes, you could pick it, but keep in mind that it takes seven years for the plant to finally produce a flower. The trout lily blossom is extremely important to Queen Bumblebees. Only the fertilized queen bumblebee will winter over, the rest of the colony dies. The trout lily nectar will nourish the emerging queen bumblebees. Most of a queen bumblebee’s lifetime is spent hibernating, but this also protects her from getting diseases, starvation and predators. In late fall each fertilized queen bumblebee will dig into well-drained soil, usually into a north-facing bank, to a depth of about four inches. Each queen will excavate a small chamber for herself and stay in it throughout the winter. When she emerges in spring, she will immediately seek flowers, such as trout lilies. Trout lilies’ nectar is high in sugar, as a fuel source. After the queen’s eggs have hatched she will seek trout lilies, and other spring wildflowers, for their pollen which will provide protein and nutrients for the larvae’s growth and development.
In bogs and wetlands or even roadside ditches, an ephemeral known as marsh marigold or cowslips (Caltha palustris) can be found in late April and throughout May, depending on weather conditions. Caltha is a Greek word meaning “cup” or “goblet”, while palustris is Latin for “marsh” or “swamp”, and these beautiful brilliant yellow blooms with dark green leaves like their “feet wet”. They are a favorite food of moose unlike other animals like deer and cows, which avoid them because for them they are poisonous. The leaves have been used and eaten by humans, but they must be boiled in water with several water changes and re-boiled before they are safe to consume. In some areas, the buds have been picked and pickled as a substitute for capers. Some herbalists even use the plant to treat several medical conditions which include warts and anemia. Even though marsh marigolds appear to be yellow in coloring to human eyes, insects that are sensitive to the ultraviolet (UV) wavelengths see them differently and are guided to the “dark flower center”.
One of the early risers is quite recognizable and appears as a small colony of green umbrellas growing in the woods. Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) have either one leaf or two, but only the two-leafed plant will produce a blossom. The beautiful white flower grows from the “crotch” of the two-leafed stem and has a “sickly sweet” odor that attracts bumblebees. It has no nectar, but its pollen is used by many insects. The fruit it produces is called an “apple”, and is actually toxic for humans; however, medicinally it has been used as a harsh laxative. The Iroquois Indians used it as an insecticide against potato bugs and corn borers. Even though it is poisonous for human consumption it is actually hard to find a ripe one since it is a favorite food of raccoons and other small mammals.
Two more ephemerals that are enchanting woodland treasures are Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) and Squirrel corn (Dicentra canadensis). Both have similar fern-like or fringy leaves but their flowers are different in appearance. They also share the same genus, Dicentra meaning “two spurs” but have different species names, cucullaria means to disguise and canadensis refers to Canada. The flowers of dutchman’s breeches are thought to look like “pants or britches” hanging on a clothesline, while squirrel corn is named for its tuber or corm which resembles a kernel of corn. As I mentioned previously most wildflowers may have numerous common names but, they only have one botanical or scientific name. The botanist named Caspar Bauhin in the late 1500s thought every plant should have two botanical nomenclatures (names) to eliminate confusion in identifying each plant. A Swedish naturalist by the name of Carl Linnaeus in the 1700s using Bauhin dual naming system set out to name every living thing on earth. These names have a Latin or Greek derivation and allow people of every language and culture to be able to identify the same plant with the same name, whether they are miles apart or on different continents. The first name (Genus) is the “generic” or group name, the second name (species) refers to a description of the plant or sometimes a location or a person’s name. The genus name is always capitalized and the species name is always lower case. Each plant name is unique, while some plants can share the same genus name or species name, they cannot share both.
As a Professional Nature Photographer, Naturalist, and Outdoor Educator, Joan Herrmann has been teaching and doing programs for Schools, Garden Clubs, Libraries, and Nature Centers, for about 38 years. After moving from the Rochester area in 1995 she began her Photography business, Essence of Nature, and also became a co-owner of The Artworks in Old Forge, New York. As a docent at Munson, Williams, Proctor Arts Institute, in Utica, New York she has been educating children and adults, for nineteen years.
In 2007 she began working with the Black River Outdoor Educational Program (BROEP) and in 2013 and 2014 did a week-long summer program at BROEP in conjunction with Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC). Using her love of both nature and photography she created a Flora/Fauna outdoor educational program teaching students (ages 6 to 14) the joys of nature and creative photography skills.
Joan’s love of nature has been a lifelong study of Birds, Wildflowers, Mosses, Ferns, Trees, Amphibians, Reptiles, Grasses, Insects, Spiders, Tracks, Scat, and Galls. She has assisted in the cataloging of all trails used by the hiking Coaches and photographed and identified seasonal Flora.
Since October 2016 she has been writing a bimonthly nature column with Adirondack Express Newspaper. In October of 2019, she began a bi-monthly column with My Little Falls Newspaper. You may reach her at email@example.com