In the Garden | A true sign of spring

 

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This week, the spring beauties (Claytonia virginica) in Lodge Park, near Monticello, were absolutely stunning. These tiny, ornate wildflowers adorn the forested trails at Lodge and other woodlands throughout central Illinois, providing us with a sure sign that spring has arrived each year.

Spring beauties are perennial wildflowers that emerge early in the year and produce tiny (one-third inch) flowers that may seem insignificant when viewed alone. However, when assembled into a carpet of white spread across the forest understory, they are a wondrous sight, typically occuring in abundance where conditions are right.

From afar, the flowers appear mostly white. Upon closer inspection, they actually have fine pink strips that can vary from a light pink to a very bright pink color, adding beautifully intricate detail for the close observer.

On bright sunny days, the flowers open wide to invite in pollinating insect guests. During colder or cloudy days in spring, the flowers close up and gently drupe downward, awaiting the next warm and sunny period. Blooms occur in mid to late spring and last for about one to two months, making this wildflower easily observable this time of year when compared to some of their more quick-flowering cousins.

I have always considered this flower the true sign that spring is here. It's certainly not the earliest spring wildflower, with others such as snow trillium, blood root, harbinger of spring and even bluebells beating it to blooms most springs and always giving me some much needed, early encouragement that spring is around the corner.

However, by the time the spring beauties come along, we have usually gained some of those warm sunny days, asserting spring's arrival.

To me, they really symbolize the start to the gardening season as well, providing that gentle reminder that our frost-free date is just a matter of a week or two away. It's nice that they aren't the final alarm, since they emerge in mid to late April and the typical frost-free date for most areas in central Illinois is around the first of May, but are more of celebratory reminder to "get it in gear." As an added pleasantry, they last well past the frost-free date, nicely launching another year's growing season.

They also symbolize the early activity of an awakening insect population each year. The warm days associated with this time of year bring out many pollinators. A quick perusal of scientific literature indicates activity from many species of bees and flies on spring beauties. Most are visiting them for nectar, although some literature notes pollen collecting bees in the mix. I counted about 11 species of native bees and five species of flies associated with these tiny flowers. There is also evidence of butterfly use as the season progresses, although less frequent.

Spring beauties are common throughout Illinois, occurring in every county, according to historical records. They prefer dappled sunlight in the early spring, which makes them more prevalent in forested areas, although they can be found in some prairies and savannahs as well.

This species is not quite as sensitive to disturbance as other wildflowers in Illinois, allowing it to persist well throughout the state over time when compared to some of the more sensitive species that have drastically declined in numbers since early settlement of Illinois. Perhaps their overall abundance, being observed with relative ease, is why they seem so noteworthy in my mind each spring?

Although most of us think of spring beauties as a woodland wildflower, they are well adept to semi-shaded lawns as well. The entrance to Lodge Park has a large open space of mowed grass, maintained for camping and other recreational activities, with a canopy of age-old, towering white oaks.

Last Sunday, this area was a virtual blanket of white from all the spring beauties in bloom. My accolades to the staff at the Piatt County Forest Preserve for delaying mowing in this area so their population of spring beauties can flourish each year.

Since I live less than a river-mile away from Lodge, along the Sangamon River, I am fortunate enough to have spring beauties pushing up through my lawn right now. I will certainly delay mowing to preserve our population of this symbolic flower.

It may not be the rarest nor the earliest wildflower, but it has always fascinated me how this tiny, white flower can persist from woodland to lawn, attempting to stretch into our more human-dominated environments while asserting its enduring, yet still ephemeral reminder of spring.

Ryan Pankau is a horticulture educator with the University of Illinois Extension, serving Champaign, Ford, Iroquois and Vermilion counties.