ACT's Nature Corner: Identifying Early Spring Wildflowers in Maine
Early spring wildflowers
After a long COVID winter, we’ve all looked forward to Spring, a time of renewal and hope. This year it means so much more than just the earth in rebirth but perhaps a rebirth in a level of normalcy for all of us. Many of us have planted spring bulbs and are enjoying their color and abundance but nature has its own display of spring wildflower beauty. Perhaps not as showy as our tulips but every bit as gorgeous, if on a more delicate scale. In this blog I hope to share some of the earliest of our local spring wildflowers with you. Most of these are on our ACT trails or around your neighborhood. I hope by learning to recognize and learn a little about spring flowers, you be able to enjoy them even more.
The earliest of these “flowers” comes from the Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus Foetidus). It is an amazing plant and one of the first to show itself in very early spring. It grows in swampy areas and is often seen on our roadsides. There is a large patch visible on Fletcher Rd in Kennebunk heading away from town on the right. The plant first shoots up a greenish to maroon color “spathe” or hood-like structure that is open on one side. Hidden inside this hood is a light-yellow flower head. Why is it one of the first in spring? Because of a unique ability to create its own heat, very rare for a plant. It actually melts the snow around it. The temperature has been measured by botanists to be 36 F, while the outside air is still in the twenties. By sending up its flower so early, it is the only game in town for pollinators. In fact, flies and other insects are drawn not only to the available nectar but to the warmth under the spathe. All this heat generation takes a lot of energy and generally lasts only a couple of weeks. The flowers dieback and the leaves begin to appear.
The plant can grow from 1-3 feet with very large leaves that can carpet an area and look like a cabbage. The other part of the Skunk Cabbage name comes from the smell of rotting meat that is emitted when the plant is bruised. Historically members of the Penobscot Nation and Micmac tribes had several medicinal uses for the plant. Bears emerging from hibernation also feasted on the roots. The plant however is not edible and can be poisonous.
Jack in the Pulpit
Jack-in-the pulpit (Arisaema atrorubens) is another interesting looking early spring plant found in damp rich deciduous woods before the trees leaf out, blocking the sun. I have seen them on the Welch Woods trail. They are so named because they look like a tiny minister preaching from a pulpit. The “pulpit” is called the spathe and “jack” the minister is called the spadix.
The flowers are actually clustered together at the very bottom of the pulpit. Flies that wander in to find the flowers pollinate the plant but find themselves trapped, unable to climb the slippery sides. The plant’s leaves will grow above the pulpit, sometimes as much as a foot above. The entire plant can grow to more than 2 feet tall. Each of the leaves is subdivided into 3 leaflets. As the trees above the plant leaf out, the pulpit will begin to dry out, leaving a cluster of red berries by the end of June. Native people used these berries and the root of the plant, which looks like turnip, as food.
Bluets (Houstonia caerulea) are one of my favorite spring flowers blooming in April and staying into the summer. They are also called Innocence or Quaker Ladies, because some see a resemblance to the cap that Quaker women once wore. This delicate and petite flower is only about a ½ inch across, with four petals. The petal can be anywhere from a very light, almost white, to a deep sky blue with a yellow center. They grow in mounds and get no more than 6-8 inches high. They are native to the eastern US and Canada and grow in wet or moist grassy meadows, thickets, and open woods and roadsides. As I child, I saw them along the highway on family car trips and thought they looked like powdered sugar sprinkled on the grass.
False Lily-of-the-valley (Maianthemum canadense) is also called Canada Mayflower and can be seen carpeting Welch Woods and the Limerick Road trails and our local woods. They thrive in damp, mossy and slightly acidic woods. They are native to northeastern US and most of Canada. The plants have two or sometimes three leaves that are 3-4 inches long, pointed and heart shaped. Their small, star-shaped white flowers cluster around a single stalk.
First-year plants have only one leaf and will not flower until next year. They are sometimes confused with the true nonnative Lily-of-the-valley that may have escaped from your garden, with its head swimming perfume, but that is an entirely different plant.
Starflower (Trientalis borealis) is a dainty woodland plant that often lives together with False Lily-of-the-valley. Both are prevalent along the Welch Woods and Limerick Rd trails. The genus name “Trientalis” is from Latin, meaning “one third of a foot”, which references the plant’s average height. The species name “borealis” refers to being from the north; these flowers are native in the eastern US and Canada. Starflowers grow in large colonies throughout our Maine woods.
The plant’s leaves are arranged in a whorl, with five to nine pointed lance-shaped leaves. From the center of the whorl, one to three delicate half-inch stemmed snow-white nodding flowers emerge. The white flower petals are pointed and also number between five to nine. There is a golden stamen for each petal, which shows up clearly against the backdrop of the white petals.
Trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens) is another of my favorite early spring wildflowers and a delight to find along the trails. At first, it’s not much to look at and is often missed. Its broad, oval, leathery leaves form a creeping mat only 4-6 inches high. In the spring they look a bit bedraggled, with rusty spots and edges. They seem to say, “we’ve had a tough winter too, but we’ve hung on and made it, just like you.” But don’t let its ragged appearance fool you. If you get down close to the specimen (actually on your belly is best) and gently turn over its leaves, you will be presented with waxy, delicately sweet, spice-scented flowers that are white to pale pink, the pink darkening with age.
Trailing arbutus typically grows in sandy or rocky, acid soils in woods and clearings, especially under oaks and pines or hemlocks. I’ve found them hiding out all along the edges of the Limerick Rd trails. It is native to Maine and New England, but not particularly common and, in some areas, quite rare, so be gentle with it.
Its common name is Mayflower, which has associations back to the Pilgrims, and, in fact, it is the State Flower of Massachusetts. The name of the Pilgrims’ ship of course was the Mayflower, but in England a “mayflower” was the common name for a hawthorn. Some claim that the Pilgrims named the early spring flower that represented survival through a tough winter after the ship that brought them to the New World. John Greenleaf Wittier wrote a lovely poem called “The Mayflowers” that speaks to the connection.
I first heard of the flower from my mother-in law, Hazel Hull, who was born in 1903. She told me how as a child they would look for mayflowers that they would use to make May Baskets. On the first of May, they would be secretly left on the doorstep of family and neighbors. (But that was a long time ago and the flowers are too rare for May Baskets anymore.)
Marsh Marigold (Catha palustris) is a bold, bright, and happy plant. It is a member of the buttercup family and is found along streams, swamps, and other wetlands, sometimes right in flowing water. Its Latin species name “paulustris” means “swampy or of wet places”. Its flowers are a bright, waxy, and shiny yellow from ½ to 1 ½ inches across. They grow in clumps and can reach from 6-24 inches high. Its leaves are also waxy and very shiny, with a dark rich green color. They are usually heart-shaped, with a notch at the stems, which are hollow. They are found all over the wet areas on the Limerick Rd property. The flowers open in early April and are formed by five to nine petal-like sepals. I researched for this article and found that although we humans see the flowers as an egg yolk yellow color, bees see them differently. Bees see them with yellow bases and “bee’s purple” at the tips. “Bee’s purple” is a combination of yellow and ultraviolet light that humans can’t see. The plant is also called cowslip here in New England, probably because the raw plant is toxic to cattle and humans. No matter what name you call it or how the flower color appears to you, please get out on the trail and enjoy its beauty.
Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum) is a common early spring wildflower that goes by other names, such as Dogtoothed Violet or Adder’s Tongue, but Trout Lily seems most apt to me once you see its leaves. They are a pair of rather thick, mottled green and brown/ maroon leaves that resemble the skin of a brook or brown trout. They grow in great colonies. I first saw them over 40 years ago while walking on the trails of the Franciscan Monastery in Kennebunk’s lower village. I have also seen them in Welch Woods. They are found in woodlands, as well as meadows, and are native to eastern North America. The flowers of the Trout Lily are a light yellow, with a brown to lavender cast on the backside of the petals. I think of them as being in one of two moods. At times toward the beginning or end of day or when it is cloudy, the flower hangs low, drooping like it’s not quite ready to participate in the day or is feeling a bit shy. Then, sometimes, particularly when the day is sunny, it opens up and becomes quite showy and exuberant. Its petals open wide and, while the flower remains facing down, curl back to reveal themselves and all their beauty.
Trout lilies are termed an “ephemeral” plant, which means they are visible for a time and then disappear. Once the flowers have bloomed and the trees have leafed out, both flower and leaves wither and disappear, leaving only the roots and bulbs of the plant to grow until next spring, when they will appear again.
I hope you have enjoyed my blog this month introducing you to a few of my favorite early spring flowers. I’d love to hear from you at email@example.com to hear your comments and suggestions for future blogs. Please share pictures of your time on the trails and the flowers you meet on social media and tag our handle @ArundelConservation.
If you spot an unfamiliar flower along one of the ACT trails or in our community, post a picture of it to your Instagram or Facebook page, and tag us. I’ll do my best to identify the bloom for you!
Be well and get outside before all the trout lilies are gone till next year.
ACT President and recent Maine Master Naturalist