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Spring progression

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

By Ranger Steve Mueller

I entered into the evening sunset among the last whistles of birds before the calm of dusk darkened the day. A final glow of orange receded from the horizon under a blue gray cloud. Blue tint remained high in the sky lighted by jetting sun rays from below the curve of Earth that also lighted drifting cloud underbellies with a white glow.

Fresh green growth of spring leaves emerged muffling the superfluous noise from peoples’ distant activities as night settled and daily outside activities were completed. 

A day with friends took us through large patches of large flowered trilliums in the upland forest. Larger masses of nodding trilliums filled the lowland wet soil with many plants straying to higher ground where we saw their small white flowers hiding under three parted leaves. Unlike the large flowered trilliums that nearly tackled us with beauty, the nodding trilliums remain secretive hiding blooms under leaves from obvious view. 

Wood anemones showed their buttercup family flowers with stamens clustered around central pistils. Just below the floodplain ridge, three parted leaves subtended the white anemone flowers. A different buttercup splashed color on the lowland stream border with shiny wax laden yellow petal-like sepals of marsh marigolds. 

Inconspicuous jack-in-the-pulpits stood high and dry with their feet in wet mud. Its spathe wraps around a flower spike and a hood covers internal flowers. A slit down the front of the spathe allows it to be carefully opened and one can examine the inner flowers. The plant chooses from year to year whether to be a male or female but never both in one year. The choice of sex is determined by the amount of energy stored underground during the previous year.

As mid-season spring flowers begin dominating, early carpets of flowers that brightened the forest floor begin to wane. The spring beauties have white petals with pink lines that open in sun and close under clouds or shade. The emergence of leaves on trees and shrubs is a signal for spring beauties to end their growing season. Developing shade from surrounding plants announces it is time for spring beauties and trout lilies to senesce.

Spring beauties might look like pink flowers until one bends near to touch them with close vision. White petals have pink lines of varying widths that make them appear to have variable pink intensity from a distance. Trout lilies scattered in dense clumps have green leaves mottled with brown to reddish speckles that generate the name “trout” lily. Its yellow flowers are like small lanterns glowing on the forest floor.

During a few short weeks, both spring beauties and trout lilies photosynthesize on the bright forest floor where trees and shrubs have not produced shade with new leaf growth. By the time woody plants release leaves from winter’s tightly packed buds, the lilies and beauties begin completion of the year’s appearance. Spreading flower petals of spring beauties provide landing platforms and are pollinated by early flying spring azure butterflies. Small insects that enter trout lilies might fertilize them but most reproduction for the species is by the spread of stolons that sprout new plants. 

When shade darkens the forest floor, the leaves of beauties and trout lilies will have completed their year’s work of producing and storing energy and will soon decay. The plants disappear from view in June and will not reappear until April of next year. They sit quietly biding their time in the darkened underground like the birds whistling goodnight at sunset that will sleep quietly through the blackness of night. 

Birds, however, will not disappear into the dark until next spring. They resume song in the morning and embark on nest building among the new leaves to fill their nature niche requirements. Our ears continue to hear their joy, work, and energetic spirit throughout spring until most quiet by midsummer. Preserving wild experiences is essential for the human spirit to thrive and depends on us conserving life in wild places.

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

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