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Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

By Ranger Steve Mueller

May Wild Flowers

Large White Flowered Trilliums command notice in forested areas and some make their way into more open areas. They are most prevalent under shade trees where they have carved out a nature niche for survival. There are challenges to making a living and reproducing under a forest canopy. Trilliums seem to do well in forests that produce deep shade. Sugar Maples’ forest create such intense shade that many understory plants starve. There simply is not enough sunlight for them to thrive.

Spring beauties and wild columbine are just two of the wildflowers blooming at Ody Brook this year.

Spring beauties and wild columbine are just two of the wildflowers blooming at Ody Brook this year.

How then can the trillium find its nature niche there? One way is that it takes its time growing and storing food and it flowers before the leaf canopy shuts off light. It does not race like the hare but plods like the tortoise with growth efforts. Botanists state it takes seven years before it produces its first flower but then it can usually flower annually there after. Annual flowers must race to grow and flower all within one year. That takes rapid growth and is a high-energy effort.

Annual flowers growing in bright sun receive an essential rich supply of incoming energy currency. They use the energy quickly and then quickly spend what they receive for growth and reproduction. Annual plants die that same year and survival of their kind depends on the success of their offspring. Most of their kids die trying to establish a place in the sun the following year. For the few that survive, they race to produce seeds that will disperse and most will die. For annual flowers to continue survival for their species, it is always a race to sprout in a suitable place, grow rapidly, produce flowers, and finally produce seeds before the first killing frost.

Trilliums take a different approach for their kind. The fortunate trillium seed establishes its place where most annual plants would starve spending their earnings too quickly on rapid growth. When first established the trillium will grow slowly using limited available light energy in the shady forest. It stores energy in its underground bank of plant stems for later use. When it has saved enough energy, it can reproduce. Though research botanists tell us it takes seven years for a trillium to first flower, I am convinced this is only a general rule.

I planted mature, large-flowered trilliums to help a native species establish at Ody Brook. Those plants already had essential stored energy in their underground stems for annual reproduction. Surrounding the few plants I planted, new trilliums began to develop and four years later I had additional trilliums flowering. Why would the new plants be flowering before seven years? I helped the plants by reducing competition from other surrounding plants competing for space and nutrients. I planted the parent trilliums near the forest edge where they received more sunlight energy than they would receive in a deeply shaded forest. These new offspring received a good energy income and with adequate currency (sunlight and nutrients) they could flower earlier.

It is still a slow process for a species to expand its population and sustain family units. When I began working at the Howard Christensen Nature Center in 1986, only a few sharp-leaved hepaticas had been able to continue life because of earlier land use practices. Pre-nature center use had eliminated most hepaticas through landscape clearing for agricultural practices. Because most of the soil in the area was not good for agricultural land, it reverted as tax forfeit land. The state then established the Rogue River State Game Area on the most of the surrounding land too poor for agricultural land.

In the area that became HCNC, a secondary forest grew. A robust hepatica plant managed to survive development at an edge near the creek and has delighted us annually with its early blooms. Gradually over the past 30 years a few more of its offspring have began to survive and expand the species population. A century had past since most of the hepatics lost a place to live there but now native habitat reestablishment allows them to slowly spread under the forest canopy of oaks. Most of HCNC still lacks the hepaticas but given a few more centuries it will repopulate. They will establish too slowly for our life times but our future generations will enjoy them.

The one hepatica that survived is likely older than Cedar Springs elder senior citizens. Because the above ground plant portion dies back annually, we do notice its individual long life like we notice for a tree.

In yards, we can re-establish native plant communities than cannot survive in places where we grow annual crops to meet our personal food and energy needs. Our yards can be a haven for native species for us to enjoy. Yards can support biodiversity being lost to human population expansion. We can share nature niches by reducing lawn areas and expanding native habitats to include wildflowers like jack-in-pulpit, wild sarsaparilla, wild ginger, Mayapple, wild geranium, trout lily, wild lily of the valley, false, true, and starry Solomon’s seals, bloodroot, wood anemone, wild columbine, and many more species. Enjoy the short pageant of spring wildflowers that bloom before leafing out of the tree canopy shuts off abundant light needed for flower production. One of my favorites it is the nodding trillium that has its flower hidden beneath it leaves.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net  Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433, 616-696-1753.

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