Spring Wildflowers Still early

SUNDAY, APRIL 29, 2012

Want to see spring wildflowers? Come out here soon. Although, the official start of summer is over a month and a half away, our extraordinary warm spring temperatures have led to some early blooming. Many of the plants that we typically see just starting to bloom at this time are already past blooming, and some have gone to seed.

We saw evidence of this all day today, even before we began our walk, looking out from the steps of the Arboretum entrance into the Native Plant Garden. Within sight were the bright, bold red and yellow petals and dangling yellow stamens of Wild Columbine (Aquilegia Canadensis). To us these flowers opening up towards the ground may seem upside down. To butterflies and humming birds who feed on the nectar that is contained in a small bulb at the upper end of this tubular flower with their long, sipping tongues – this upside down arrangement works fine. Shooting Stars (Dodecatheon meadia) are also in bloom in the garden next to the front entrance. Also an interesting flower, the delicate white petals are upright, and hang from downward arching stalks. However, like the Columbine, the male, pollen containing parts, point downward. These are attached underneath the white petals and the downward pollen containing stamens are encased in a small pointed cone. The Shooting Stars are designed to attract bumblebees and some solitary bees that are strong enough to grab this cone and shake the pollen out of it – referred to as buzz pollination. As we made our way around the Vistor Center we also saw Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana), Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum) and Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea) in bloom.

Plants on the shadier side – at the outer portions of the Native Plant Garden and in the dappled shade around the edges of Gallistel Woods were a great variety of plants that can thrive in sunny or partially shady areas. Jacob’s Ladder (Polemonium reptans), has many leaves on a single stalk, referred to as a compound leaf. The leaf stalks look like a fern, or rungs on a ladder to the folks who came up with this plant’s common name. We usually see several plants from the lily family blooming this time of year. And, we did see a patch of the drooping bright yellow flowers of Merry-bells (Uvularia grandiflora), tiny white flowers of the Starry Solomon’s Plume (Smilacina stellata) about to bloom, and the showy large white flowers of the White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum).

Upon entering Gallistel Woods were several larger patches than I had seen before of Woodland Phlox (Phlox divaricata). On the trail to Icke Boardwalk were some healthy stands of Sensitive Ferns (Onoclea sensibilis) and Ostrich Ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris), a patch of small white five-petaled flowers of False Rue-anemone (Enemion biternatum), and the larger (golf ball sized), papery golden yellow flowers of several stands of spreading Wood Poppies (Stylophorum diphyllum).

Some flowers I had often seen at this time of year we did not see. Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum), which usually blooms into May had already bloomed and gone to seed. The same was true for the low spreading carpets of white flowered Toothwort (Cardamine concatenata), and the majority of Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum). Our group today, like many of us, are a bit nervous about this rapid change in climate – is this throwing the cycles of soil organisms, pollinators, predators, etc. out of the ranges of their normal variation? Just to test our perceptions, I looked up several of the flowers we saw on a listing of average bloom times and variations that had been kept by Aldo Leopold, and carried forward to just several years ago by Nina Leopold Bradley, around their shack, near Baraboo – not too far north of Madison. The Columbine and Shooting Stars we saw in full bloom on April 29th, had an average first bloom over the last 61 years of May 12th for Columbine and May 17th for Shooting Stars. The most drastic difference of plants we saw that were on this list was Wild Geranium. In Gallistel, the majority of geraniums we saw had gone to seed, but the recorded average for first bloom of this plant was May 13th. I did notice that in cooler north facing slope areas of Wingra Woods the geraniums were just blooming. And, it is true that the Columbine and Shooting Stars are growing next to the Visitor Center, in which our building and the heat radiating from it creates a microclimate that can warm the soil and air. However, the differences for many species are evident, and I have seen Shooting Stars blooming for several weeks in my own garden and in Curtis Prairie.

On the edge of Gallistel we did see something else I had not expected to see. An eye- level dangling bunch of flowers from a young Black Cherry tree (Prunus serotina). Usually I see these flowers up 20 feet or higher in more mature trees. The tightly bunched flowers from that distance resemble a white cheddar Cheetos snack. Also, white cheddar Cheetos are now referred to as “wild white cheddar” because they are “dangerously cheesy,” and black cherry trees in the woods are often referred to as “Wild Black Cherry” – coincidence? I am not tempted to eat them (the black cherry flowers), but I have tried the fruits of the wild black cherry, which are edible. They have not been bred for sweetness or tartness like our cultivated cherries, so the wild cherry I tasted was slightly bitter, but not unpleasantly so. Hope you have been encouraged to get out (outdoors) and test your senses.

Paul Borowsky

Located between Lake Wingra and the West Beltline Highway at 1207 Seminole Highway, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum features the restored prairies, forests and wetlands of pre-settlement Wisconsin. This 1,260-acre arboretum also houses flowering trees, shrubs and a world-famous lilac collection. Educational tours for groups and the general public, science and nature-based classes for all ages and abilities, and a wide variety of volunteer opportunities for groups, families and individuals are available.