Wildflowers are appearing throughout the Door County landscape now and one family is well represented. There are 18 species of plants in the lily family. All are recognized by the flowers being in parts of threes or sixes. All except one – the Canada mayflower.
The tender young leaves in spring are a favorite for the deer to nibble on and the small ruby red berries that form very close to the ground in summer are relished by white-footed mice, chipmunks and the ruffed grouse.
There are probably few places in Canada that this plant blooms in the May. Perhaps the only spot is in southern Ontario, which lies below the latitude of northeastern Wisconsin. As a matter of fact it rarely is in full bloom in Door County until early June.
This beautiful little wildflower was first discovered and described in Canada and given the scientific name of Maianthemum canadense (may-AN-the-mum can-a-DEN-see). “Maius” is Latin for May and “anthemon” is Greek for a flower. Naturally “canadense” refers to Canada, so its common name of Canada mayflower is quite obvious, as is the likelihood that it was first botanically described in southern Ontario, where it should be flowering in late May.
A flower as widespread as this diminutive little member of the great lily family is bound to have several different common names, including bead ruby, foam flower, squirrel berry, heartleaf, two-leaved Solomon’s seal and false or wild lily of the valley. I ask those who insist on calling it the false lily of the valley if they would ever consider calling the lily of the valley the false Canada mayflower? I’m sure you get my point. Yes, I prefer to not include the word false in any plant names.
I’m fortunate to have many growing along the edge of the path through the woods to my old garden and western field. I can enjoy them and closely observe their progress every day of their growth. There they flourish freely with large-flowered trilliums, trout lilies, hepaticas, wood anemones, downy yellow and Canada violets, Solomon’s plumes, wild leeks and other species typical of the mixed hardwoods where the soil is moist and where there is partial shade.
What handsome, parallel-veined, shiny heart-shaped rich green leaves that clasp the flowering stems these ubiquitous perennial plants have. The abundant single leaves you see are too young to produce blossoms. They will have to grow another year or two before they develop two or three leaves and the small, white, foam like clusters of flowers grouped in what is referred to as a raceme (ra-SEEM), a stalked inflorescence in which stalked flowers are arranged singly along a common main axis.
About the only other wildflower I can think of that could be confused with the Canada mayflower is the three-leaved Solomon’s seal. However, each blossom of this wildflower of very wet sites has six petals, compared with the four-parted structure of the Canada mayflower. What’s downright confusing is that both of these small, rather dainty wildflowers belong to the lily family.
This is one of the unique features of the Canada mayflower, a lily whose flowers are in parts of four. It has four stamens, two petals and two sepals that actually appear to be petals. One could say, for all practical purposes, that it does have four petals. At least that’s what they look like to me when I examine the individual one-eighth to one-quarter-inch blossoms using a ten-power magnifying hand lens.
Here is a 4 to 6 inch wildflower that to be genuinely appreciated should be looked at face to face through a hand lens while you are comfortably lying on your belly or side. This to me is one of life’s little pleasures, especially when you own the woods and these plants and where you are privileged to walk, stand, sit, kneel or lie wherever you please!
One thing I think of now is to check for wood ticks or deer ticks after spending any time on the ground. We didn’t have to worry about that 40 years ago, but they are now a major part of the outdoor scene in Door County.
What you will want to be sure to do when you come upon a patch of these wildflowers in full bloom is to smell them. You are in for a surprise. It is said that a clone of these extensively creeping plants, spreading by underground rhizomes, may be 20 feet across and 60 years old.
Eventually red-speckled berries will form that change to pink or red and appear to be too large for the overall dainty frame of the plant. They are inedible by humans.
Rarely, if ever, will you see Canada mayflowers in bloom before all of the snow has melted. Spring has really settled in and you can even expect to have a few mosquitoes buzzing around your ears when you are enjoying the many fine virtues of these exquisite little “belly flowers.”
William Blake wrote some powerful thoughts in his “Auguries of Innocence” that you might wish to think about the next time you kneel down to enjoy a Canada mayflower:
“To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.”
So what’s your personal favorite sign of spring? I have several, one of which is the Canada mayflower!