With the Vernal Equinox nearly upon us (it’s March 20 this year), my imagination turns to the flowering plants. We aren’t seeing much activity yet, of course, but a few specialized species make their move early in the season, taking advantage of the lack of competition as other organisms have yet to awaken from their winter slumber.
One of the earliest—and best-known—spring bloomers is skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), a denizen of calcareous seeps, fens, and banks of spring-fed streams. Some authorities assert that, of all our flora, skunk cabbage is the first to bloom each year. To be sure, it has its charms, but as flowers go some folks might be disappointed. It looks and smells—more or less—like a wad of rotting flesh. It is no surprise, then, to find that it is pollinated principally by flesh flies (Sarcophagidae family) and carrion flies (Calliphoridae family), which happen to be out and about early in the year, feeding on carcasses and contributing to the nutrient cycle by aiding in decomposition.
Often overlooked are the flowers of the silver maple (Acer saccharinum). This fast-growing tree has found its way into our residential landscapes as an opportunistic volunteer, but its shallow, spreading root system may lift sidewalks, causing them to buckle, and may enter drain lines and sewer pipes, blocking their capacity. Silver maple’s relatively brittle wood, in combination with its growth form, leaves the trees susceptible to damage from wind, ice, and snow. And while they may not be ideal street trees, silver maples perform essential ecosystem services, playing host to hundreds of species of beneficial insects, as well as providing forage and habitat for many birds and mammals. Their natural habitat is alluvial forests such as those occupying floodplains along our water courses. The flowers are tiny and have no petals, but the stamens, pistils, and floral bracts may present a rich, reddish-pink color. While the flowers may bloom as early as February, they often escape our attention (situated high in the tree) until storms knock them to the ground.
One of my favorite native plants to present its flowers very early in the year is American hazelnut (Corylus americana), which usually enters its bloom period in the middle of March. We have a fine, tall specimen near the Severson Dells Nature Center, so I have been watching it daily in anticipation of seeing its welcome demonstration that spring is arriving.
Hazels bear separate male (staminate) and female (pistillate) flowers on the same plant (what we call a monoecious plant species). The male flowers form during the growing season and remain immature through the winter, visible as catkins, dangling from the twigs of the shrub (and making it relatively easy to identify hazel during the winter). The catkins elongate to about 2 to 3 inches or more as they mature in mid-spring. It is the pistillate flowers that I look for in March. While most of the flower remains hidden within its protective bracts, the slender, magenta stigmas are exposed, filamentous in the vernal air. Hazels, like maples, are wind-pollinated.
The fruits (hazel nuts) are beautiful brown orbs wrapped in dramatically fringed bracts. In appearance, the nut is similar to that of the European filbert (Corylus avellana), a close relative, but the bracts of the American hazelnut are distinctive. It can be difficult to collect hazel nuts, they are prized by squirrels and other wildlife. And while hazel brush was frequently noted by surveyors who crisscrossed the region during the early nineteenth century, we see relatively few specimens today, mostly due to habitat loss and encroachment from invasive species.
So, before those beloved woodland wildflowers even begin to festoon the forest floor with their blooms of white and yellow, look to the trees and shrubs above for some of the first flowers to burst their buds and herald the coming of spring.