Spring Wildflowers

One of my most pleasant hikes into our spring woods each year is to locate the first blooming wildflower. This year it was the Hepatica on the day before Easter, April 19. In some years the first to bloom is not a native of our area but rather a heavily perfumed violet called, among other names, the English Dooryard Violet, Viola odorata (o-doe-RAY ta). A six-inch-wide clump given to us many years ago and planted on the west bank near our house has expanded to a dozen or more feet of hundreds of blossoms.

Other than a small number of Wild Leek leaves about four inches out of the ground, that was all the “green” I could find in our woods besides some mosses and sedges. Usually the next wildflower to come into bloom will be the Dutchman’s Breeches. They usually precede their close relative, the Squirrel Corn, by a week to 10 days. About that time we can expect to find a few Giant Trilliums starting to bloom in the protected cove of our west retaining wall and quite close to the foundation of the house.

Blossoms and deeply cut leaves of Dutchman’s Breeches.

The beautiful and intricately shaped Dutchman’s Breeches and Squirrel Corn belong to a sub-family of the poppy family, the fumitory family, named in allusion to the smoky odor of some species. I prefer to call this group the bleeding heart family.

One other member of this small plant group, blossoming later, is called Climbing Fumitory or Alleghany Vine (Adlumia fungosa). It is uncommon enough in Door County so that stumbling across this delicate vine with its drooping white to pinkish flowers climbing over high bushes or the roots of tip-over trees is always an unexpected treat. My favorite place to look for it is near the north side of Rock Island State Park.

Two other somewhat more common members are the Pale Corydalis and the Golden Corydalis (co-RID-a-lis). Both do well in rocky places and recent clearings. The Golden Corydalis especially likes limey slopes and gravelly or sandy shores.

All members of this family are known for being slender, weak, water-juiced, having fleshy rootstalks, feathery much-dissected leaves and irregular flowers. Their petals are often joined into a heart-shaped long-spurred corolla (collectively the petals of a flower are its corolla).

Close-up of the beautiful and unusually formed Dutchman’s Breeches flowers.

The first fumitory plant in my life, growing in my parents’ flower garden, was the Bleeding Heart. Its heart-shaped blossoms somewhat resemble those of our wild Squirrel Corn. Fortunately this favorite flower of old-fashioned gardens is still being cultivated and sold.

One look at the two Dicentras (die-CENT-ras) of eastern Wisconsin, the Dutchman’s Breeches and the Squirrel Corn, will clearly reveal their close relationship to the Bleeding Hearts of gardens.

Two sepals and four petals of two different sizes and shapes, intricately formed and folded, usually white but occasionally pinkish, make up one of the most charming spring wildflowers in America, surely one that the Dutch people would welcome into their country.

Old timers referred to them as Butterfly Banners, Eardrops, Soldiers’ Caps, or Boys and Girls. Years ago, when I was taking early elementary school groups into the spring woods to learn about birds and wildflowers, I told them to make up their own names of the wildflowers they saw. My goal was to get them to look at different parts of the flowers and leaves in order to come up with names. Quite a few of the students called the Dutchman’s Breeches the “Tooth Flower.”

These wildflowers, lacking fragrance, often carpet areas an acre or more in size. They do best where the leaf mold is deep in a woods that will be shaded and kept cool in summer by a rather dense overhead canopy. I have observed too that they thrive in rocky ground where rich leaf mold has accumulated over many years in the crevices between the rocks.

The flowers of Squirrel Corn resemble the shape of the cultivated Bleeding Heart.

Seldom have I seen them grow more than a foot tall. In fact their one-sided racemes (ra-SEEMS) supporting a half-dozen or more miniature “pantaloons” nod pleasantly downward. Their name of Dutchman’s Breeches may be somewhat coarse, but otherwise these wildflowers are delicate in all respects.

Pilferer insects are common in nature. Insects of many kinds obtain nectar and pollen in various ways from wildflowers. It has been said that by inspecting the holes made in the nectar spurs of Dutchman’s Breeches one can get an idea who the pilferer was. Holes with jagged edges hint of bumblebees. Holes with clean-cut, circular shapes can be attributed to wasps while narrow slits are made by carpenter bees.

The dissected leaves of the later blooming Squirrel Corn are slightly more bluish-green than those of its Dutch cousin. Their greenish-white blossoms, tinged with lavender, are delicately perfumed like hyacinths and resemble in shape those of the Bleeding Heart.

If you suspect that your woodland patches of Squirrel Corn are decreasing in size, this may be due to the refined appetite of your resident Chipmunks. They love Squirrel Corn, lily bulbs, tulip bulbs etc., etc., etc.! These wildflowers might more appropriately have been named Chipmunk Corn. In case you are wondering, the grain-like tubers are dull yellow and closely resemble peas or grains of Indian Corn.

These are the very delicate Allegheny Vine blossoms.

A lady I got to know a long time ago, Marie Sperka, had a wonderful wildflower nursery, Woodland Acres Nursery, near Crivitz, Wis. I mention her name for two reasons. She is the author of what I feel is still the best book in its field, Growing Wildflowers: A Gardener’s Guide (Harper and Row), and she claims fame for the horticultural development of the hybrid, Dicentra luxuriant, an outstanding fluorescent red Bleeding Heart.

I sit here in the late afternoon of April 21, 2014, watching migrating Yellow-rumped Warblers doing their best to cling to the Marvel Meal feeder and get bits of nourishing sustenance, and I think pleasant thoughts of my boyhood days and my parents’ lovely vegetable and flower gardens in Kewaunee, Wis. My heart bleeds for those good old days!