We suffered a bit of thermal shock last week returning to our Wisconsin home after spending the winter in Florida. Spring began there in February with red maples flowering. By the time we left daytime temperatures were in the 70s, the deciduous tree leaves were out, bald cypress trees had grown their new leaves and big white magnolia blossoms were showing.
The spring here has been cool and dry. Despite the cold weather, we were happy to see that robins, red-winged blackbirds, hummingbirds, orioles, Carolina wrens, catbirds and rose-breasted grosbeaks had returned. Friday and Saturday nights were frosty. We wondered how the hummingbirds fared, but they were back at the feeders in the morning. We got a welcome quarter of an inch of rain on Saturday. A rain/sleet/snow mix chased us inside while we were pruning the apple orchard on Mother’s Day.
The early spring ephemeral flowers are appearing a bit late. Dutchmen’s breeches, bloodroot, rue anemone, common blue violets, downy yellow violets, Virginia bluebells, trout lilies, spring beauties, wild ginger and hepatica and a few trilliums are out now. The real show will begin with a bit more water and some warm days. Phlox, wild geranium, jack-in-the-pulpit and Solomon’s seal will bloom soon, to be followed by the late spring and summer flower show. The trees are starting to leaf out now. They will soon shade the forest floor, shutting down the spring ephemeral flowers for the season.
Many trees and shrubs bloom before or during leaf-out. Our valley becomes fragrant with scent from apple, wild plum, quaking aspen, and wild cherry blossoms. A close watch of any of those trees on a warm day revealed squadrons of pollinators. In addition to domestic honeybees, a variety of bumblebees, smaller wild bees, wasps, butterflies, moths and beetles visit the flowering trees.
Smaller flowers have their own beauty. A magnifying glass helps to see the smaller-scale world. Bur oak leaves the size of a mouse’s ear are accompanied by long clusters of green male staminate flowers. The pistillate flowers form near the ends of twigs and form acorns after being pollinated. The lowly and embattled lawn weed creeping charlie has an elegant vase-shaped pink-purple flower, translucent with darker stripes like blown glass. We see honeybees foraging for nectar and pollen on the creeping charlie blossoms. Wild cherries have finger-sized bunches of small white flowers. Red osier dogwoods, having kept some color around all winter on their red stems, sport circular bunches of small white flowers among their growing leaves.
The showy flowers on these plants are all about attraction -- not for others of their own kind but to attract sex workers. Unlike pines and grasses that release pollen that is dispersed by the wind, most flowering plants rely on insects or birds to pollinate their flowers. Flowers are showy and offer up nutritious nectar and pollen in order to attract pollinators. Many flowers are attractive to bees because they fluoresce in ultraviolet light.
The fancy creeping charlie flower has hairs inside to brush pollen off visiting small bees. Tiny wild cherry flowers have stamens that curve inward to ensure that visiting insects leave painted with pollen. The ends of the pistils on red osier dogwood flowers turn red after they have been pollinated, perhaps to let the insects know to look for the unpollinated flowers.
It’s fun to take a break from farm, garden, or yard work and take a close look at the many species that live in the neighborhood. When observing the real world, the closer you look, the more you see.
Dan Wilcox of River Falls, Wis., writes a periodic column. Send comments and suggestions to him at firstname.lastname@example.org