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Northland Nature: Purple clematis lights up the roadside

Each year as April unfolds into May, the woods is carpeted with a widely diverse and colorful group of spring wildflowers. With limited time to bloom and grow, they take advantage of the available sunlight and rapidly develop a stem, leaves and flowers. After a week or two, they just as quickly fade as shade takes over from the spring sunlit scene. The forest is greening in this month and what was a bright open forest floor a few weeks ago is now darkened as the growing arboreal canopy closes overhead.

Plants now found under the trees are those that are more shade-tolerant. A walk in the woods of late May will no longer reveal the hepaticas, bloodroots or spring beauties from the earlier bouquet, but I now find a whole new flora growth at this same site. The walk filled with these vernal ephemerals a few weeks ago now abounds with plenty of others. Yellows are seen in yellow violets and blue-bead lily (Clintonia), but whites far outnumber them, as starflowers (one of the few flowers with seven petals), Canada mayflower (wild lily of the valley) and dwarf ginseng stand only inches above the soil, while baneberry may be a couple of feet tall. Other flowers take advantage of the light at the edge of the woods and here I found the leafy patches of rose twisted-stalk, Solomon's Seal and false Solomon's Seal. (These two really don't look that similar, but just have names that connote such an appearance.) But every so often, it is a true delight to find a completely different one in bloom.

Such was the situation recently when I walked on a gravel road. The plants on the roadside were at a location in which they could get plenty of sunlight and they were thriving here. The small trees of Juneberry, pin cherry and choke cherry were all blossoming and I stopped for a closer look. And amongst them I saw a large-flowering vine with a delightful purple color. Vining as it did, this plant, the purple clematis, rose high above the ground. The leaves could receive the needed light and the huge flowers were abundant. Though the petals (not really petals, but instead they are purple sepals and usually called petals) are big (about two inches long, and the flower is nearly four inches across when completely open), the florets had only four petals. Most spring wildflowers have five petals and though many others do have four, they tend to be much smaller. The huge purple petals hang down from the vining stem and almost no flower is entirely open.

Clematis plants and flowers are well known among many who maintain flower gardens. The colorful domestic kinds, also with large flowers and varying numbers of petals, have delighted many homeowners in the Northland. In the wild, we have two species: the large purple ones that bloom in May, which can look very different from their small cousins of mid-summer, the white clematis (also known as virgin's bower). Both are vines and twine among shrubs to gain needed sunlight and get attention of passing pollinators. After the blossoms fade, clematis forms fluffy seeds of late summer and fall that are nearly as attractive as their showy flowers when they bloom along the roadsides.

I mark the end of spring as when the flowers in the open fields outnumber those of the woods. Though this will be earlier than normal this year, it still is a couple of weeks away. Meanwhile, we can revel in the rich and colorful shade-tolerant flowers now in the woods (along with the thick fern growth) and if we are fortunate, we'll find others like yellow and pink ladyslipper orchids as they also start to bloom now in late May. There is much to see in the thick green woods at this time.

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