Spring Wildflowers of Central Michigan (Part I)

By April 18, 2020 No Comments

When it comes to an abundance of wildflower species, the people that reside in the Chippewa River watershed are truly lucky. By the sheer luck of geography, we live in an area known as a climatic tension zone – a narrow zone where many species reach the limits of their range due to climatic factors. This means that we live on a boundary between species that grow primarily to our south and those that grow primarily to our north. This can be seen by looking at maps that show the distribution of natural communities across our state.

Distribution of some of the natural communities of Michigan

The junction of natural communities means that our region is blessed with innumerable ecotones – transitional zones where the characteristics of immediately adjacent ecosystems and natural communities intermingle or intergrade. This means we can sometimes find species that grow along the Gulf Coast growing next to species that would be comfortable growing in the boreal forests of subarctic Canada. Because of this biodiversity, it is possible to find more than 200 species of wildflowers in Central Michigan during any given year.

With that in mind we want to share some of the flowers that you can expect to find over the next couple months. These flowers are being shared in three installments and are presented in no particular order

Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) is normally our first wildflower of the year. The plant is named for its large cabbage-like leaves that definitely have a skunk smell when crushed. The bloom consist of a fleshy spathe (hood) enclosing a circular spadix that bears small pollen covered flowers. The spathe varies in color from green to reddish-brown or purple often with streaks or spots. The flowers produce no nectar but attracts pollinating insects such as flies and beetles with an unpleasant smell similar to rotting meat – interestingly bees (including honeybees) often visit this flower in early spring to gather pollen.

One really interesting feature of the Skunk Cabbage is that it’s flowers generate enough metabolic heat to melt their way through snow or ice! To find this flower search in swamps or floodplains. It’s not impossible to find this flower as early as February.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is often our first terrestrial wildflower of the year. It’s white flowers typically measure 1.5 to 3 inches across, but occasionally its flowers will be as small as 0.75 inches (barely larger than a thumbnail). Bloodroot’s wide open flowers attract a variety of pollinators including bees, flies, and beetles.

Bloodroot is often found in dense colonies of genetically identical plants (clones) that grow from underground rhizomes. The plant also spreads by seed. The seed are dispersed by ants that gather them to eat a fleshy nutrient rich coating known as an eliasome before discarding the seeds in their underground garbage piles. Look for Bloodroot in rich woodland habitats such as beech-sugar maple forests between early April and early May.

Often occurring in the same places and at the same times as Bloodroot is Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria). This species is named for the white blooms that resemble pairs of pantaloons hanging by their ankles. This flower is often pollinated by our earliest flying bumblebees and bee flies (a bee mimic). Both species have long tongues that allow them to access nectar deep in the two “legs” of the bloom.

The closely related Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis) grows in the same places as Dutchman’s Breeches, but usually flowers a week or two later (late April to mid-May). Both species have have similar fern-like foliage, but in different shades of green.

So why is the plant called Squirrel Corn?  If you dig up the roots of the plant you will find small pale-yellow bulblets (tubers) that resemble kernels of corn.  Squirrels, chipmunks, and mice will often dig up this plant to consume the bulblets.

Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum) is another ephemeral flower of rich woodlands. This plant is named a “Trout Lily” because the leaves bear speckles much like the sides of a trout. It is sometimes called “Fawn Lily” for the same reason. The species is also sometimes known as “Dogtooth Violet” because its underground corms (bulbs) bear a resemblance to teeth.

Trout Lilies often take years to produce a bloom – as many as 7 to 10 years! It takes lots of energy to produce a flower and for the first years of its life the plant sends up only a single speckled leaf. Only when the plant has stored enough energy in the form of starch will it produce a second leaf and a bloom. This species is often pollinated by beetles that are attracted to its energy rich pollen.

The White Trout Lily (Erythronium albidum) has the same life cycle as the Yellow. This species is one of those that reaches the northern edge of its range in Central Michigan. Both E. albidum and E. americanum can be found blooming late April into early May.

Violets are simple – everyone recognizes them! Violets are also complicated – there are many species and the often hybridize! There have been twenty-six native species of violet catalogued in Michigan!

Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia) is probably the violet that most people are familiar with. It grows everywhere in Central Michigan in forests, floodplains, fields, maybe even in your lawn. If you find a violet out in nature and it lacks any other distinguishing features, it’s probably this species.

Despite the name, this violet comes in many colors – violet, blue, lavendar, and even white. Common Blue Violet blooms anytime between late March through June.

American Dog Violet (Viola labradorica) has been renamed in recent years, it was formerly known as Viola conspersa, but has been lumped with V. labradorica – many books and websites still refer to it by its old name. 

This species can often be distinguished from Common Blue Violet by its habitat preference. Although Dog Violet will grow in dry habitats, it prefers wetter soils such as those found in swamps, floodplains, marshes, and other damp areas.

If you find a violet growing in wet soils the next step to identification is to look at the arrangement of the leaves. American Dog Violet is one of several species of violets that have flower stalks with leaves on them. Common Blue Violet (V. sororia) has leaves that grow only from the base of the plant with the flowers growing on separate stalks.

Look for Dog Violet from May to July.

The Long Spurred Violet (Viola rostrata) is primarily a woodland species. This species can be identified by the long spur (1/2 to 3/4 inch long) that sticks out behind the petals (see picture).  The spur contains nectar that can be accessed by long-tongued bee species. This species blooms from April to June.

Marsh Violet (Viola cucullata) is similar to the Common Blue Violet, but is identifiable by its elongated sepals (see arrow in picture) and flower stalks that are taller than the leaves.  The leaves are heart-shaped and usually narrower than those of the Common Blue Violet.  This species is also less hairy.

As the name implies, Marsh Violet prefers wet soils such as those found in marshes, swamps, and floodplains. Look for it from April to June.

Finally a violet that is easy to identify! The Downy Yellow Violet (Viola pubescens) is Central Michigan’s only yellow violet. Although called a “Downy” Yellow Violet, the appearance of this species is highly variable – some plants are extremely hairy while others have almost no hairs.  Look for it in woodlands from April to June.

Creamy Violet (Viola striata) is the final violet included in this list. If you find a white violet in Central Michigan it can be one of several species. Common Blue Violet sometimes produces white flowers. Canada Violet (Viola candaensis) always has white flowers.

Creamy Violet can easily be differentiated from these two species. Unlike the Common Blue Violet with its basal leaves and separate flower stalks, the flowers and leaves of Creamy Violet grow on the same stalk.

Creamy Violet differs from Canada Violet in the fact that its flowers do not have a yellow center or throat (see picture). This can be seen in the next photograph.  The throat may have purple lines that act as nectar guides to bees, but these are not always present – the one pictured above lacks the nectar guides.

Creamy Violet blooms April to June. It can be found in rich moist soils of woodlands, floodplains, and occasionally swamps.

Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) is a spring ephemeral wildflower of moist deciduous woods.  It completes its blooming cycle before the canopy trees have completed leafing out in the Spring.  As a result it only blooms for a few weeks at most.  In Mid-Michigan it typically begins blooming in early April and continues until mid-May. 

Its grass-like leaves appear before the flower buds.  At full height the plant can reach up to 6 to 10 inches tall, but is usually shorter.  Sometimes the plant forms dense colonies that carpet sections of the forest floor.

The Spring Beauty flower has white or pale pink petals.  Each petal has a series of purple lines that radiate from the base of the petal. These lines act as “nectar guides” for bees and other pollinators.  Bees (and many other insects) have the capability to see ultraviolet light.  Under UV light these lines are like a signpost pointing the way to the available nectar.  The center of the flower is a pale yellow-green.  This contrasts with the pinkish petal and purple nectar guides to further advertise the location of nectar.  This feature is is found in many flowers that are pollinated primarily by bees.

Wild Blue Phlox (Phlox divaricata) is found in rich deciduous woodlands, woodland edges, floodplains, and along the margins of swamps. It grows 1.0 to 1.5 feet tall and is topped with a cluster of blue flowers that measure about 3 inches across. Each individual flower is about 1 inch across. This species blooms April to June.

People often confuse Wild Blue Phlox with another flower – Dame’s Rocket (Hesperis matronalis).  The two plants are easy to distinguish if you look at the flowers.  Dame’s Rocket, a non-native member of the Mustard family, has flowers with four petals.  Wild Blue Phlox has flowers with five petals.  Unfortunately, Dame’s Rocket is much more common in Central Michigan.

The final flower of this installment is Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides). This species can be found in the same rich woodland habitats (such as beech-sugar maple hemlock forests) as many other species on the list. It typically blooms April to May. Like most of the flowers on this list, the bloom times of Blue Cohosh are variable depending on the weather. A cold wet spring can push blooms back several weeks.

While many spring ephemerals have bright flowers that stick out against the browns and greens of the forest, the pale green flowers of the Blue Cohosh are small and inconspicuous.  Despite the small size of the flowers, this plant is visited by a variety of pollinators including bumblebees.  After pollination, the plant produces small dark-blue berries that often remain on plant stalks throughout Summer, Fall, and Winter.

That’s it for the first installment of Central Michigan’s Spring Wildflowers. Over the next two weeks, we’ll share an additional thirty species. We hope this inspires you to get out and explore!