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The Science of Spring Wildflowers

Posted on 3/23/2015 by State Nature Preserves
skunk cabbage
Skunk Cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus

What better time than spring to contemplate the beauty of nature in Ohio’s woods? From late March until May, the glory of spring can be found along many of Ohio’s wooded trails.

Colorful blooms are bountiful in our woods because spring wildflowers have the advantage of more sunlight, which streams through the forest’s canopy before the leaves darken the forest floor. Often known as spring ephemerals, they are triggered to bloom after a long, cold winter. Early spring warmth followed by a sudden hard frost can damage their delicate blooms and leaves, dampening the display. The most spectacular wildflower seasons are brought on by a gradual warmup through March and April with frequent rain. Timing of the blooms is heavily dependent upon temperature- a three week difference in flowering time is not unusual when comparing counties bordering the Ohio River in southern Ohio with the extreme northern part of the state in Ashtabula County.

The first bloomer of the spring is the odorous skunk cabbage, a member of the arum family. With a brownish-red colored horn-shaped spathe as its flower, one could easily miss this spring sentinel. The best way to spot it is when snow is still on the ground in February and early March. Look for the ring of melted snow around the flower. Yes, this plant produces heat as it begins to bloom that melts the snow around it.

More colorful blooms follow after the Ohio’s snow cover has melted. Snow trillium, harbinger-of-spring, hepatica and bloodroot are amongst our earliest wildflowers. Dutchman’s breeches and large-flowered trillium come next, followed by later spring bloomers like wild geranium, Mayapple and Virginia waterleaf. The season closes with the blooming of the spectacular Lakeside daisy, a federally threatened species that grows in abandoned limestone quarries near Marblehead and on Kelleys Island.

Ohio’s spring wildflowers attract early pollinators in the form of native bees and flies. Lured by bright colors and fragrances, honeybees, solitary bees, bumblebees and syrphid flies visit flowers in search of nectar and pollen. Healthy spring wildflowers populations provide adequate food for our pollinators. Robust populations of spring pollinators then provide more food for the migratory birds that arrive later in the spring, in great need of quick energy after a long journey. Like birds? Thank our wildflowers!

Mesic woods, those characterized by rich organic soil and moist conditions, showcase the largest array of wildflowers throughout the spring months. While most woods in Ohio have at least some native spring wildflowers, the best populations are found in relatively undisturbed areas, often away from urban areas. Pressure from herbivores, invasive plants, and presence of non-native earthworms are potential threats to our woodland jewels.

The dainty blossoms of Ohio’s wildflowers add sparkle and color after the brown and grays of winter. To see our wild spring blooms, you must actively seek out woods near you. These places have spectacular swatches of spring color that are not to be missed!

Places to see Ohio’s Spring Blooms:

State Nature Preserves: Miller Nature Sanctuary (Highland County), Clifton Gorge (Greene County), Christmas Rocks (Fairfield County), Gross Memorial Woods (Shelby County), Goll Woods (Fulton County), Collier (Seneca County), Eagle Creek (Portage County)

State Parks: Hueston Woods (Butler County), Caesar Creek (Warren County), Shawnee (Scioto County), Hocking Hills (Hocking County), Salt Fork (Guernsey County), Mohican (Ashland County), Mt. Gilead (Morrow County), Lake Hope (Vinton County), Punderson (Geauga County)