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First Colors of Spring in Michigan

It’s happening. Michigan’s annual procession of spring wildflowers has begun at last. In April, all it takes is a day or two of blue skies and warmer temperatures for the waiting buds of bloodroot, spring beauties, hepaticas, trout lilies, anemones, and other jewels of the hardwood forest to open.

Yesterday, with temperatures in Kent County finally hitting the seventies, I found the year’s first pioneer blossoms gracing a trailside along the Coldwater River. With the sun shining gloriously again today, the ranks of the springtime color parade will swell considerably. And within a week, a veritable explosion of wildflowers will litter the forest floor with whites, pinks, purples, and yellows.

I love this time before the trees leaf out, when the maples are a wash of tiny, red flowers, the lawns and fields turn from brown to green, and the forsythias transform themselves from bare branches into visions of buttery yellow.

In the wilds, it all starts with the lowly skunk cabbage—an odd and remarkable little plant that I’ve written about in a previous post . Skunk cabbage blooms when the snows are still on the ground, generating enough heat to melt its way through the frozen earth and thrust up its peculiar, pointy hood in the swamps and wet woods. Normally the hoods are a wine red mottled with green. But yesterday, walking along the Dolan Trail in southeastern Kent County, I spotted a striking, pure lime-green flower. Skunk cabbage is not a plant one would normally describe as beautiful, but this one was a work of art.

It’s not the only one, though. Skunk cabbage may lead the procession, but other wildflowers are beginning to lean in and lend their colors. The dogtooth violet—otherwise known as the trout lily because its attractive, copper-and-olive leaves resemble the camo coloring of trout—is unfurling its sunny yellow flowers here and there in the open woods. In the same vicinity, the bloodroot is opening its snowy, eight-petaled blossoms in the sunlight. Pull up one of these plants by its root and you’ll see how the bloodroot derives its name: the bright red sap makes the root look like it’s bleeding.

The main attraction of the Michigan Nature Association preserve where I was hiking had not yet put in its appearance. The Virginia Bluebell is one of the rarer wildflowers in our state. It’s also one of the showier ones, but it is presently just starting to poke its clumps of lush foliage up in the colonies that, in another week or so, will grace this tract of woods with masses of fragrant, sky-blue flowers.

In the meantime, the pageant of the spring is unfolding in other ways all through the sanctuary. Patches of duckweed, one of the world’s smallest flowering plants, are rising to the surface of the wooded pools. The Dutchman’s breeches are hanging out their first creamy, miniature pantaloons. In another few days, you’ll see them by the hundreds.

And the show doesn’t stop with the flowers. On an old log, I spotted a small but strikingly attractive shelf fungus whose brown, orange, and yellow banding reminded me of tiny turkeys spreading their tails.

If you’ve been hunkering down indoors waiting for the winter to end, hunker no more. Now is a time to head for the woods, the trails and the streamsides. The trout fishermen are out, the birds are singing, the wildflowers are blooming, and Michigan is burgeoning into mid-April. What are you waiting for? The sky is blue. Get out and smell the flowers!





Written by Dave.