Published May 14, 2012, 08:48 AM

Northland Nature: Bellworts now blooming in the May woods

This week while walking in a rich patch of vernal ephemerals at Jay Cooke State Park, I found about twenty kinds in bloom.

By: Larry Weber, Duluth Budgeteer News

When spring burst onto the scene in March this year, we all were amazed at the quick exit of snow and ice by the month’s end.

We also marveled at how quickly catkins and other tree flowers developed in much of the forests. And it looked like the new season was advancing at a pace of three to four weeks ahead of the normal time. It looked like we would be repeating the spring of 2010. April, with the fluctuations attributed to the month, slowed the movement a bit, but we still see early foliage now, in mid-May.

Quaking aspens began leafing out by mid-April, an event that last year we did not experience until early May, the usual time.

It looked like the whole woods would be following this pace and greening far before the normal. Things slowed somewhat in late April as we cooled, but now in May we are looking out on forest growing its new foliage perhaps two weeks before the seasonal average.

New leaves in the canopy mean shade on the forest floor. And the plants that live here and take advantage of spring sunlight need to hurry their growing season as well. Many of these well-adapted plants will grow at this time. These spring wildflowers, called ephemerals because of their short lifetime, need to grab available light and grow stems, leaves and flowers to quickly bloom and get pollinated during a few short weeks of sunlight before the homeland will be shaded. For our area, this usually means that during the first half of May, a walk in the deciduous woods of the Northland will be graced by often ten to twenty kinds of wildflowers now in bloom.

I found the first one, a hepatica, in bloom in late March, at least three weeks early. And I expected that many others will also be blooming soon. Now, after we’ve passed through April, and look into the woods, I see that yes, they are early, but not as much as expected. Despite the March start, we are not as far advanced as expected, and not like the spring of two years ago.

This week while walking in a rich patch of these vernal ephemerals at Jay Cooke State Park, I found about twenty kinds in bloom. The early hepaticas, bloodroots, spring beauties, marsh marigolds and wood anemones were still holding flowers while later ones were adding their colors as well. As I walked, I noticed the new arrivals: jack-in-the-pulpits, wild ginger, trout-lilies, toothworts, trilliums and bellworts. Temperatures were mild and no mosquitoes followed me. I could stop and take a close look at these flowers during their short blooming time.

The bellworts were of special interest on this day. (The term wort, when spelled this way, essentially means “plant.”) We have two species in the Northland woods, the larger bellwort, which blooms yellow, while the smaller one (also called “wild oats”) is a cream color. Both are droopy-looking plants, since both leaves and flowers hang down. Its scientific Latin label of “Uvularia” is a reference to the uvula, the flap that hangs down in the back of the mouth. Some early naturalist saw this plant in a way that most would not: the name of “bellwort” refers to this hanging, bell-like appearance. The three sepals and three petals are both yellow and so the flower appears to have six yellow petals.

What I always find so amazing about this plant is how fast it grows. One day it is not even sticking up out of the ground, but a week later, the plants have grown about six inches high and have leaves and flowers showing. Bellworts usually grow in groups, and during my walk I found good numbers of both kinds, and at a few sites the two mixed.

Yellow petals hang on long enough to get the attention of spring insects to be pollinated and later form fruits and seeds. Plants eventually fade in the shade of the summer woods. But for now, on a walk in mid-May, bellworts blend with the rest of this vernal bouquet.

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