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Northland Nature...Shade-tolerant wildflowers are now blooming

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The late spring was quick to move on and warm to summer-like temperatures as we reached the end of May. Unlike the previous six months, May recorded an average temperature above normal, because of the days in the 80s during the last week. And ample rains, as we exited the month, added to the scene.

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Walking among the leafed out trees and thick growth on the forest floor, I find it hard to believe that about a month ago, we still had ice on nearby lakes, snow patches on the ground and woods of bare trees. The spring has exploded. Not only was this season late, it was also short.

Spring wildflowers that quickly take advantage of the sunlight, penetrating to the forest floor after the snow melt, had to deal with plenty of April snows. Plants such as hepatica, bloodroot and spring beauty, that normally are in bloom during late April, had to wait until mid-May for proper conditions to flower this year. These vernal flowers, which also include bellworts, trilliums, violets, trout-lilies and ginger, prevailed in a magnificent bouquet in the woods — for about a week. Just as they were thriving, the weather quickly warmed.

Starting with the quaking aspens, the trees opened leaves. The sunny woods were taken over by shade from the canopy overhead. If that were not enough to contend with, the ferns which quietly opened fiddleheads by mid-month, were a foot or more tall a week later. The sun-loving spring wildflowers that were so slow to start were destined to be quick to fade.

However, the woods is highly diverse and when some flowers fade, others are ready to take their place. We are now in phase two of the spring flowers. The plants that are much more shade-tolerant are now flowering.

Along with the quick spring came other aspects of this season. Migrant birds came and went, species of frogs called, more kind of butterflies showed up — including the first monarch May 29 — trees blossomed and a new batch of mosquitoes and blackflies arrived. Perhaps it is the last of these that tends to keep us from the woods at this time. A walk among the earlier spring wildflowers is bug free. A walk with these later shade-tolerant ones is usually with many insect followers.

Despite the annoyance, I find walking among these wildflowers that bloom under the leafy trees is just as marvelous. On an early June walk, I find several kinds in bloom. Most of the plants at this time are less known, even though they are common. In the shade, I find starflower, wild lily-of-the-valley, sarsaparilla, baneberry, yellow violets and clintonia. All of these are white or yellow and most are not tall. Starflower, being only a few inches high, is easy to pass by, but in the center of the whorled leaves, it has its white bloom of seven petals, a condition quite unusual for plants. Though seven is the norm, I have seen some with six and others with eight.

Wild lily-of-the-valley (also called Canada mayflower) has its cluster of tiny white flowers on a spike above a stem that normally holds two leaves. Frequently, they abundantly grow on the forest floor at this time. Also white are the ball-shaped flowers of the sarsaparilla (also called sarsparilla). Flowers are borne on groups below the outspread leaves while those of baneberry are on top of plants nearly two feet tall. Yellow violets persist in the June woods after the purple and white cousins have faded. And clintonia (also called corn-lily or blue-bead lily) flourishes for a couple of weeks in the woods.

Soon they will be joined by larger and somewhat better known plants; bunchberry, Solomon’s seal, columbine and a couple of kinds of orchids, the pale coralroots and the colorful lady’s slippers. Bunchberry (also called Canada dogwood, since it actually is a dogwood) with its four white bracts (usually called petals) is a regular part of the north country June forests. Solomon’s seal and coralroots show that flowers can be green or hard to see, while the columbine, with its red-yellow flowers, and the lady’s slippers’ pink and yellows, are big and easy to see. While the pink lady’s slipper (moccasin flower) is a plant of the bogs and conifer forests, the yellow lady’s slipper grows among deciduous trees where these plants produce groups of large yellow flowers on leafy stems.

Walking in the woods now may have a few drawbacks, but seeing these shade-tolerant flowers is worth it.

Retired teacher Larry Weber of Carlton is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” You may contact him at

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o