- Nature Nearby is written by Valerie Blaine, the nature programs manager for the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. You may reach her by email, email@example.com.
April is fading away in a dreary stretch of gray, wet weather. Seems those nice sunny days earlier in the month were just a tease. But here’s an ecological tidbit to remember: April showers bring May-apples. And Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Trillium, Wild Geranium, Solomon’s Seal, Doll’s eyes, Woodland Phlox … to name just a few.
The diversity of native wildflowers in May is worth the wait. Blossoms burst on the scene in May as flowers open with abandon. Kane County’s oak woodlands are particularly resplendent with dozens of species of herbaceous plants, and some flowering trees as well.
The woodland wildflowers of May are often referred to as the “spring ephemerals.” They bloom for a very short time. They last only long enough to get pollinated and do their thing — making seeds for next year, that is. By the time the leaves in the trees green up and produce shade, most of the spring ephemerals are past their prime.
The unique stories of wildflowers are part of their charm. Take Jack-in-the-Pulpit, for example. This is not your typical, pretty-petalled wildflower. Its bizarre structure includes a hood (the pulpit), which is striped maroon and green. The hood shelters a narrow cylinder that stands straight up. This is Jack, supposedly preaching from his pulpit. Jack is technically a cluster of tiny, inconspicuous flowers. The tiny flowers don’t even have petals. For the botanists in the crowd, the hood is called a spathe and the cylinder of flowers is the spadix.
Jack-in-the-Pulpit was used in traditional medicine, and as food. (Another name for the plant is Indian Turnip.) As with all native plants, traditional uses were based on knowledge passed on from generation to generation. The methods of preparation and the dosage are critical, as this plant contains some potent chemical compounds (notably, calcium oxalate). In other words, “Don’t try this at home, kids!”
May-apple is another cool plant in our spring flora. It’s also kind of a strange-looking plant. May-apples form colonies of umbrella-shaped leaves. The “umbrellas” stand about 16 inches tall. Some of them are poised on a single stalk, some are on a forked stalk. The forked stalked leaves are the ones that bear flowers. In early May, the buds are just forming. By the end of the month, a dazzling white flower will unfold. The May-apple flower is big and bold, and somewhat gaudy – yet it’s completely hidden from our view. The flowers don’t exist for our enjoyment, of course. They have evolved with their insect-pollinators, who evidently like them just fine under the cover of big leaves.
So what’s with the apple part of May-apple? The flowers produce a round, green fruit that resembles an apple. In our area, the fruit develops in June, so we should perhaps call them June-apples. Don’t even think about popping one in your mouth. As with Jack-in-the-Pulpit, this plant is chock full of chemicals. These have been applied in medicine — but leave that to the pros!
These are just two of dozens of species of ephemeral wildflowers in our woods. If you haven’t taken a walk in a forest preserve recently, now is the time! Or, if you walk in the woods every day, keep your eyes open as new wildflowers bloom daily. The orchestral harmony of new blossoms, pollinating insects, spring birds, and plentiful sunshine is sure to soothe your soul.
Wildflower Walks in Kane County Forest Preserves
To start off a month of wildflower-watching, Naturalist Barb McKittrick will lead a spring wildflower walk at Bliss Woods in Sugar Grove on from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday, May 1. We’ll go over identification tips, ecology, and plant stories during this evening stroll.
If you want to treat Mom to the beauty of spring wildflowers, join Naturalist Erica Lemon for a Mother’s Day wildflower walk from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. Sunday, May 14, at Camp Tomo-chi-chi Knolls in Gilberts. The pace will be leisurely for moms, grandmas, and families.
SOURCE: Valerie Blaine, Forest Preserve District of Kane County