Spring is here — at least the calendar says so — and this is the time to go hunting for Maine’s native woodland wildflowers. But don’t dawdle. They come and go in a hurry. Blink, and you may miss them.
Known as spring ephemerals, these modest little blooms grow mostly in deciduous forests. They take advantage of abundant early sunlight hitting the ground through bare tree branches. Leaves and stems shoot up, flowers explode and seeds are released — all before the trees above leaf out and suck up all the light.
“The amount of sunlight has everything to do with everything that grows in the forest,” said Tamson Bill, a park ranger at Wolfe’s Neck Woods State Park in Freeport. “Most wildflowers grown in the dapples — the little spots of sunlight.”
Bill has been a ranger in Maine for 32 years, starting right out of high school. They often lead groups through the woods on wildflower hunts. It’s part of the job that Bill really likes.
“It gives me the opportunity to get out in the woods, to meet people, to share my passion for the outdoors,” said Bill. “And I’m always learning something new, seeing something new.”
Maine’s spring ephemerals are not the showiest blossoms you’ll ever gaze upon. It takes an observant eye, like Bill’s, to spot them at first.
“If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you might never see them,” said Bill.
The flowers may be hard to find — most are tiny — but that doesn’t mean they’re rare. They are widespread, abundant and growing near you.
“Oh yeah, anyplace there’s a bit of bushes. There’s a lot of stuff right in Portland,” said Bill. “Just go out on the Stroudwater trail. Hinkley Park in South Portland is another great place, or Baxter Woods in Portland. This is stuff most Mainers can find in their own backyards, as long as they’ve got a bit of woods.”
Below are a few of the spring ephemerals Bill was able to point out on a short walk around Wolfe’s Neck Woods State Park this week.
To find woodland blooms yourself, Bill suggests getting a pocket-sized field guide to Maine wildflowers or her personal favorite: “Never Say It’s Just a Dandelion” by Hilary Hopkins.
Also, Bill will lead a public wildflower walk at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 26, at Wolfe’s Neck Woods State Park.
Fly honeysuckle is a native plant that looks a bit like a widespread invasive Asian variety, which is also found in Maine. It’s fairly common and likes to grow on clearing edges where it can get some sun. Fly honeysuckle blooms earlier than the non-native cousin with white tubular flowers. The local variety has a round stem. The invasive is shaped more square.
“It’s an important wildflower species. Hummingbirds like it. The bees like it, too, because it comes out early. It’s an important food for bees,” said Bill. “Later, it bears little red berries, which the birds love.”
Trailing arbutus, sometimes called a Mayflower in Maine, is one of the earliest wildflowers to bloom in Maine. The small, fragrant flowers are everywhere and easy to find. They like the kind of well-drained, slightly acidic soil found in any pine forest. The leaves are large, evergreen and leathery.
Bill remembers showing a North Carolina bigwig around one time while he was killing time, waiting for a flight home. He’d just attended a nearby conference.
“I actually had him down on his knees sniffing the mayflowers,” said Bill. “They smell fantastic.”
Wood anemone grows on the forest floor in thick bunches. It is sometimes known as “windflower” because the slightest breeze makes it tremble. The small white flowers stay shut on rainy days and at night. Below the flower, there’s usually a whorl with three branches bearing three leaves apiece. A whorl is the central location where stems sprout.
“They like marginally sunny areas,” said Bill. “You’ll see them a lot on protected roadsides and little protected areas near streams. When there’s just a little breeze you’ll see it doing its dancy thing.”
Sessileleaf bellwort is common in Maine. Its a member of the lily family with yellow flowers that hang down toward the ground. Bellwort can be found in forests all over the eastern half of the United States.
“They’re not real showy, and I probably walked by them a million times before I first noticed them just a few years ago,” said Bill. “It’s that way with a lot of wildflowers. If they’re not super showy you can walk by them for years and never notice until someone points them out and then you’ll see them everywhere.”
Dwarf ginseng looks like a miniature version of the related plant, American ginseng. The American strain has medicinal value; the dwarf does not. It prefers to grow in damp areas. The flowers are tiny, just a few millimeters wide.
“It doesn’t bloom long,” said Bill. “It will probably be over and done with in two weeks, at the most.”
Trout lilies are named for their mottled brown leaves, resembling a brook trout. They have the typical lily shape with large leaves and a single, central flower that points to the ground. They’re a very short-blooming ephemeral, lasting no more than a week or two.
Last year, while showing trout lilies to a group of seventh-graders, one boy whipped out his smartphone.
“He started scrolling madly and pulled up a photo of a beautiful brook trout he’d caught the week before and then held it up next to the leaf so everyone could see why they were called trout lilies,” said Bill. “One of the best parts of this job is making those connections with people — and with middle school kids, sometimes they get interested in spite of themselves.”
Goldthread gets its name not from its blooms but from its bright yellow roots. Both European colonists and Native Americans chewed it to relieve mouth sores. That’s why it is sometimes known as canker root. It was also sometimes used as an eyewash. The flowers are white and it comes from the buttercup family.
“It has nice, little, evergreen scalloped leaves,” said Bill. “They look almost like a fancy shamrock. It’s really a pretty little plant.”
Wild columbine grows 2 or 3 feet tall and sports intricate red flowers with yellow innards. It grows in rocky woods, on gravely slopes and limestone outcroppings. You can sometimes find it right on the shoreline as it tolerates salt spray. Wild columbine is native throughout the eastern United States and southeastern provinces of Canada.
“This is probably the original plant [from which] they bred various domesticated varieties for people’s gardens,” said Bill. “I don’t know a whole lot about it other than it’s wicked pretty.”
Hobblebush is not a spring ephemeral wildflower. It’s a dramatic woodland shrub with large clusters of white flowers blooming before most other bushes even have leaves. It can often be seen growing on the edge of dirt roads and well-trodden trails. Both moose and deer like to browse on it. The blossoms have large, sterile, bee-attractive flowers on the outside and smaller blooms — with stamens and pistils — on the inside.
It gets its name because it does layering where the branches that are close to the ground will actually put down roots,” said Bill. “They create loops and trip people up.”
It’s sometimes called the toilet paper bush because of its large, tough leaves. They can be useful during a springtime emergency pit stop.
Nature thinks of everything.