By Joyce deVries Tomaselli, Cornell Cooperative Extension Dutchess County, Community Horticulture Resource Educator
Photos: Courtesy of Joyce deVries Tomaselli
Some years, spring arrives with a leap, does a few flips, twists, turns and finally lands with a bang. Bulbs produce masses of color. Herbaceous perennials emerge from the soil overnight, bursting into bloom a few days later. Trees and shrubs leaf out, seemingly all at once (especially for those of us with allergies to pollen). Bees and flies fill the air along with a few butterflies.
If you take the time, you can discover an amazing assortment of native wildflowers.
Dutchman’s breeches, Dicentra cucullaria, is an ephemeral plant that prefers rich, moist, humusy soils in part shade. The flowers are usually white but sometimes pink, and are shaped like upside-down pantaloons. The plants grow from miniature tubers, and their seed is spread by ants.
Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis, grows in deeper shade with more moisture. Each flower stalk emerges with a leaf wrapped around it, which unfurls as the flower opens; these leaves are interesting in their own right. The flowers close at night and are very short-lived. Every part of the plant exudes a bright red-orange sap, which was used by Native Americans for dye. The plant spreads by rhizomes.
Where the shade is quite deep, you can find vast drifts of trout lily, Erythronium americanum. These plants spread by seed but don’t bloom until they are four or five years old—and they bloom during trout season. They grow from corms, which produce stolons and slowly spread if left undisturbed. The corms are shaped like a dog’s tooth; thus, another common name is the dog-toothed violet. The flowers only last a few days, and the leaves die back by late spring.
Along the side of a creek you can find clumps of marsh marigold, Caltha palustris. Although it does grow in marshy areas, there is little about it that warrants the name “marigold,” except perhaps its color. It’s actually part of the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae.
You might see huge collections of similar yellow flowers this time of year, especially along the rivers near parkways to the south. That, sadly, is an invasive species named Ranunculus ficaria, or lesser celandine, which is a very aggressive grower.
There are three species of Trillium that can sometimes dodge deer. This plant’s leaves, petals and sepals all come in groups of three. A single unbranched stem emerges in spring, topped by a whorl of leaves, followed by a single flower. The plants spread by underground rhizomes and occasionally by seed disbursed by ants. They prefer rich, humusy soil in part to full shade.
In drier understories, look for spicebush shrubs, Lindera benzoin. Their greenish-yellow flowers are very small and create a cloud of color in the deep woods. In early autumn, their bright-red fruits, called drupes, are enjoyed by birds. The plant’s showiest season is late autumn, when their leaves turn a bright, clear yellow.
Remember never to pick wildflowers or dig them up to try to transplant them. It’s better to purchase plants from a reputable dealer or to grow them from seed. And with the variety of native plants available, you won’t be lacking in beautiful wildflowers to choose from. █