Spring Wildflowers of Central Michigan (Part III)

By May 8, 2020 No Comments

This is the third and final article of our series highlighting the spring wildflowers of Central Michigan. In Part I we discussed the reasons behind our diversity of wildflower species and highlighted fifteen of the earliest bloomers. In Part II we moved a little further into the season and featured an additional fifteen species.

Most people who spend a lot of time in the woods are familiar with the Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum).  With its pair of three part leaves and a hooded green or purple flower composed of a pale green spadix (the jack) encased and topped by a spathe (the pulpit) is easily recognizable.  Later in the year, the spadix and spathe will be replaced by a cylinder of green berries that will ripen to a bright red.

The triphyllum in its Latin binomial mean “three-leaved”.  Because of its three part leaves, this plant is sometimes incorrectly identified as Poison Ivy. Look for Jack-in-the-pulpit to bloom between April and June.

Downy Solomon’s Seal (Polygonataum pubescencs) grows in moist woodland habitats, especially beech-sugar maple forests, and shrub thickets. The species is often found growing on slopes.

The tubular flowers of Downy Solomon‘s Seal dangle beneath the plant’s arching stem.  The pale green to white flowers grow from the leaf axils (the place where the leaf attaches to the stem) and are arranged either individually or in groups of two to three.  Look for the flowers of this species in May or June.

The next three species bear a resemblance to Downy Solomon’s Seal but are not closely related to that species. All three can be distinguished from true Solomon’s Seal plants by having flowers at the end of the stem rather than hanging below the stem from the leaf axils.  

Starry False Solomon’s Seal (Mainthemum stellatum) has flowers that are about 1/3 inch across and have six narrow white petals. Later in the year the blooms are replaced by green berries with purple stripes that eventually turn reddish-purple as they ripen.

In Central Michigan, Starry False Solomon’s Seal lives in a variety of shaded and partially-shaded habitats with moist to wet soil including woodlands, woodland edges, floodplains, and swamps. Search for its blooms from May to June.

While Starry False Solomon’s Seal bears only a handful of blooms, Feathery False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum racemosum) has dozens of tiny (1/8 inch) blooms arranges in a 3 to 5 inch long spike. After pollination, the flowers are replaced with tiny berries that ripen to a bright red.

The habitat requirements are similar to those of M. stellatum, growing in a variety of wooded habitats. This species bridges the gap between late spring and summer; look for it to flower between May and July.

Canada Mayflower (Maianthemum canadense), sometimes known as False Lily-of-the-valley, does not have the long arching stems of the previous two members of its family. Instead this species only grows three to six inches tall and bears only one or two (rarely three) leaves.

The white flowers of Canada Mayflower bear a superficial resemblance to those of Foamflower (see Part II) or Baneberry (see below).  Like those species, the white flowers of Canada Mayflower have long stamen, making each individual flower look like a 1950’s Atomic Age art object.

As the name implies, Canada Mayflower typically first blooms in the month of May and extends into June. This species thrives in a variety of habitat types ranging from wet to dry and sun to shade.

Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) produce large white flowers that are hidden under their large umbrella-like leaves.  Immature plants will only produce one leaf and will not flower.  Mature plants produce a pair of leaves that grow from a single stem.  A single white flower which grows from the point where the stem splits in two. 

When the flower is pollinated the plant will produce a single large yellow berry that can be from 1 to 2 inches in diameter.  When ripe this fruit is edible.  All other parts of the plant (including unripe fruit) are toxic. The plant contains an alkali based toxin called podophyllin.  In large doses, this toxin may be deadly.

Mayapple often forms large colonies.  The colony spreads both by seeds and by thick rhizomes.  It grows in in a variety of shaded and partially-shaded habitats including wet woodlands, floodplains, and shady meadows. Bloom time is late April through June.

Swamp Buttercup (Ranunculus hispidus) is the first of three related plants on our list. There are eighteen species of Ranunculus in Michigan, so narrowing them down can be a challenge.  Swamp buttercup can be identified by it’s large flowers (1/2 to 1 inch across), habitat (wetlands) and compound leaves with a stalked terminal lobe.

This species can be found in a variety of wetland habitats including wet woodlands, swamps, wet meadows, and the banks of streams.  It blooms April to June.

Hooked Crowfoot (Ranunculus recurvatus) is another wetland species from the Buttercup Family. Hooked Crowfoot has one feature that distinguished it from all other Michigan Ranunculus species.  The flowers of this species are small (about 1/3 inch) with hooked styles (part of the flower that connects the ovary and stigma).  It is the only small-flowered Michigan Buttercup species with hooked styles.

The leaves on this plant are divided into into three to five lobes.  The leaves near the top of the plant are smaller and simpler than those located near the bottom.  The plant’s stalks are covered with fine hairs. Look for Hooked Buttercup in May and June.

Unlike the previous two species, Small-flowered Buttercup (Ranunculus arborvitus) is commonly found in upland habitats as well as wetlands. As the name of the plant implies, the flowers of this plant are small, measuring approximately 1/4 inch across with five short yellow petals. The flowers can be found April to June.

The leaves of this species are different on different parts of the plant.  Basal leaves are kidney-shaped and may measure as much as 4 inches across.  Stem leaves are smaller and divided into 3 to 5 lobes.  Two alternate names for this plant are Kidney-leaved Buttercup or Littleleaf Buttercup.

Early Meadow-rue (Thalictrum dioicum) is a tall spring ephemeral found in rich wooded habitats such as beech-sugar maple forests, floodplains, and the margins of swamps. The plants of this species are dioecious, meaning that individual plants produce only male or only female flowers. The flowers of male plants look like a school of tiny jellyfish. Look for this flower from April to June.

Central Michigan has two species of wild strawberries. One way that they can be identified is to look at the leaves. Both species have three-lobed leaves with serrated (toothed) edges. On Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) the terminal serration (the tooth at the tip of each lobe) is smaller and shorter than the two serrations to either side.

Wild Strawberry is the more common of the two species. Look for it in a variety of open or wooded habitats including meadows, lawns, woodlands, woodland edges, and even in drier areas of swamps and other wetlands. Wild Strawberry spreads easily via above-ground runners and often forms large colonies.

This species blooms between April and June. The small red fruit produced by the Wild Strawberry are delicious – much sweeter than most cultivated varieties!

The Woodland Strawberry (Fragaria vesca) has many of the same habitat requirements as the Wild Strawberry. The two species are often intermingled, but Woodland Strawberry is generally less common in Central Michigan.

Just as with F. virginiana, to identify Woodland Strawberry you have to look at the tips of their leaves. In this case, the terminal serration should be the the same size/length as the two to either side. If you find fruit, the seeds of Woodland Strawberry rest directly on the surface of the fruit, while those of Wild Strawberry are recessed into little pockets.

We have two species of Baneberry in Central Michigan, Red Baneberry (Actaea rubra) and White Baneberry (Actaea pachypoda). Both species are found in rich woodland habitats, although White Baneberry is less common in coniferous forests than in deciduous. Both species have compound leaves and clusters of white flowers. Both species bloom from May to June.

Baneberries are very difficult to identify by species unless you find fruit. Red Baneberry typically has red fruit, but a white variety can frequently be found as well. The most diagnostic feature of the two species is the stalks of the individual flowers or fruit. Red Baneberry has very narrow stalks and White Baneberry has thickened stalks.

White Baneberry (Actaea pachypoda) is best identified by its fruit. It’s white berries have a black dot at the tip and resemble the eye of an old fashioned porcelain doll giving the plant the alternate name of Doll’s-Eyes.

We started our list of spring wildflowers with a flower that smells unpleasant (Skunk Cabbage) and we’re ending the list with another one. Illinois Carrion Flower (Smilax illinoensis) is named for its flowers that emit the smell of rotting meat. Because of the smell, this plant’s globe of green-white flowers is mostly pollinated by flies. Look for Carrion Flower in rich woodlands, floodplains, and riverbanks from May to June. Later in the year, the flowers are replaced by a globe of purple-black berries.

We hope you have enjoyed this series of articles. Even more so we hope that you are inspired to get out in the natural world and practive your new wildflower identification skills. If you find a species that isn’t on the list and need some help with identification, snap a couple picture of the leaves and flowers and send them to us. We’re always happy to help!