In this blog, I generally focus on native plants that are blooming in an urban/suburban environment. It is difficult to find any that are truly “native” blooming this time of year, and I have a yard with over 70 native species. Many that I am mentioning have become naturalized in North America and seem to be “wild” or native and have spread naturally. It would be challenging to find an area in the US that has not been “infiltrated” by non-native species. Even in Alaska, where I lived for nearly ten years, I saw invasive species like Pineapple weed (Matricaria discoidea), Butter-and-eggs (Linaria vulgaris), and the dastardly dandelion (Taraxacum).
Despite the conundrum of should I or should I not highlight native species exclusively, the overall purpose is to share my observations which are probably common to many, and perhaps answer the question of what’s blooming.
It is hard to imagine that any wildflower has already completed its blooming cycle. The native Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) is so early that the plant is probably done flowering by March. Skunk cabbage is one of the rare plants that can metabolically generate heat through a process called thermogenesis. This quality allows the plant to bloom as early as January, even when snow is on the ground.
Its natural habitat is in low-lying wet and even swampy areas. My first encounter with the plant was when I was working as a National Park Service ranger at Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio. My office was conveniently located at the Happy Days visitor center (now a special event center), which accommodated the trailhead to the Haskell Run nature trail. Haskell Run is a creek that leads to the Cuyahoga River, and just a half-mile down the trail from Happy Days is where I first observed the flora in bloom. It was in January. Some people suggest that you will smell it before you see it, but my experience was only a visual one (the leaves may need to be bruised to release the skunk-like odor). Regardless, it is a fascinating plant and worthy of mention.
For additional information about this amazing plant, visit the University of Wisconsin horticulture website.
Closer to home (and probably in your yard), one may discover the ubiquitous Creeping speedwell. There are many species of speedwell within the genus Veronica, many of which are not considered native to North America. The diminutive size (the flowers are only about a quarter-inch wide) allows one to easily overlook or dismiss this harbinger of spring. It is a low-growing, mat-forming perennial that is suitable as a groundcover. However, some consider it invasive and may spread from the clippings of a lawnmower. On a warm winter day, the flowers are likely to be visited by flies or other winged insects, allowing another season of pollination to occur.
Plants of the mint family are generally cold tolerant. Henbit (also known as Henbit deadnettle or Horsemint) is one of them. It is a small plant as well but can easily provide a carpet of color across a large area. It is an annual that seeds readily. Because it flowers early, an abundance of pollinators may not be available. Not to worry, as it self-pollinates profusely.
Siberian squill (Scilla siberica) is a plant I was unfamiliar with until I moved to the Waldo neighborhood. Just a half-block away from my home, it dominates the yard of several lots. Its presence is short and showy and will go dormant by the time the lawnmower comes out of hibernation. It naturalizes rapidly by seeding and is considered invasive in parts of the Midwest.
Despite the name, it is not from Siberia but from Asia.
When looking for some interesting information about a subject, I sometimes find better words than mine. In this case, I received a Facebook notification which was quite timely. The following is from the University of South Carolina Southern Piedmont Natural History Facebook page.
“Common Blue Violets (Viola sororia var. sororia) are a familiar sight this time of year. Also called Dooryard Violets and Wooly Blue Violets, they’re native to the eastern and central US and show up in yards, disturbed areas, and bottomland forests. Some people also plant them as a ground cover in woodland gardens.
These violets bloom from February to May, when small bees and flies occasionally visit them as a nectar source. However, most seed production doesn’t come from pollinators but from small, self-pollinating (cleistogamous) flowers produced in summer. These self-pollinating flowers appear at ground level, and the flowers don’t even open!
The caterpillars of several species of fritillary butterflies feed on the heart-shaped leaves. People eat them too. The young leaves and petals can be placed in salads or candied. As always, though, you must be 100% confident in your identification before eating any wild plant.”
The common Blue-violet, along with the previous three flowers listed, can monopolize a yard or forested landscape at times, bringing joy to many that pass by.
Ground-hugging plants are not the only ones making an early appearance. The Forsythia Bush is an early blooming favorite of the masses. There are a number of hybridized cultivars of this olive family member. Softwood cuttings can be used to propagate the species easily. A bit of folklore from my mother, who stated, “there will be three snows after the Forsythia blooms.” As I write this, there is the possibility of snow in the forecast the next day, which was preceded by a few flakes in the air three days ago. Never doubt your mom.
Magnolia trees are glorious producers of springtime enticement. Unfortunately, more times than not, I have witnessed the petals of their blossoms turning brown when near-freezing temperatures enshroud the foliage. My newest neighbor was horrified when she first experienced her Magnolia being affected. She thought her tree was going to die. I assured her the tree would survive to bloom next year but to expect the same negatively looking impact as a possibility. In this region, there are two native “Magnolias” of the magnolia family, the Cucumber tree (Magnolia acuminata) and the Tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera).
The Eastern Redbud tree (Cercis canadensis) is a widespread native of, you guessed it, the eastern United States. The small deciduous tree provides a good show even before it blooms. The prominent redbuds provide ample reason as to how the tree got its name. Once the flowers drop, the seed pods become prolific, and a significant amount of saplings will often sprout up the following spring. The twigs and saplings have a distinctive zig-zag pattern of growth and are nearly black in color. Redbud trees will grow quickly given enough water.
Grape Hyacinth (Muscari neglectum) is the common name and a member of the lily family (true hyacinths are members of the Asparagaceae family). It is a perennial bulbous plant that produces spikes or racemes of dense, primarily blue round flowers that look like bunches of grapes. Not only do they look like grapes, but they have a grape kool-aid odor.
Several other plants have the same odiferous quality. When traveling the southwest, you may encounter the Mescal bean plant, also known as the Texas laurel. This small bush stays in bloom for about two weeks, so the window is small to catch a whiff. While I was working at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, visitors taking the Natural Entrance trail during the Mescals’ blooming period would encounter the smell and wonder where it was coming from. It was easy to point out the purple blooms of one of several Mescal bean plants near the trail.
Crocus – Crocuses are one of my favorite perennials because they bloom so early. In popular photographs, they are sometimes depicted popping up through a thin layer of snow. Over the years, I have experienced such scenes on a somewhat regular basis. The low profile of the plant often serves in beds as a border to taller flowers behind it. It is native from the Mediterranean region to western China.
Purple vinca or Periwinkle has a host of other common names, including vinca minor or major or creeping myrtle. It is an evergreen perennial often used as a ground cover. The flowers can be blue, white, purple, or lavender in color. It will spread over time and may be considered invasive. Shade is preferred, but it will tolerate some sun and drought. It is often planted at the base of trees where other vegetation will not grow.
Sand Phlox (Phlox bifida) is naturally found in dry or sandy areas or on rock outcrops and limestone glades. The star-shaped flowers and clumping growing habit provide visual interest to this casual ground cover.
Daffodil, or trumpet narcissus, is a bulb-forming plant in the amaryllis family (Amaryllidaceae). It is one of the more prolific spring flowers and deer resistant. Many times in my yard, a warm spell during winter will cause the foliage to emerge only to survive freezing weather afterward. I have some daffodils planted next to the house on the east-facing side. The stonework produces a slightly warmer micro-climate allowing the flowers to bloom about a week earlier than the daffodils located in the open bed area.
Both Daffodils and Tulips do not claim North America as their continent of origin (Daffodils from southwestern Europe and central Asia for Tulips), but each has become naturalized in the states. Hybridization has occurred in each species resulting in many different colors and forms. These easy to care for plants have delighted homeowners and gardeners alike for many generations.
The dandelion – The scourge of millions, and I suspect millions of dollars are spent each year trying to eradicate these hardy plants from domestic turf. Is it a weed or a wildflower? To me, a weed is nothing more than a wildflower, out of place, out of phase, or out of time.
My wife’s roommate in college was from Japan. One spring day, she asked my wife what were the beautiful yellow flowers she saw in the grass around campus. My wife shared with her how the majority of Americans disdain the dandelion. It is a matter of perspective. There is Dandelion wine and Dandelion greens that people consume. I may have had the wine, but I don’t recall ever having eaten dandelion greens.
As a composite flower producing hundreds of seeds, they can quickly spread and get established on a wide range of bare soils to thick grass. And they are not limited to just blooming during the spring but throughout the growing season. As for me, I could do without and regularly go on dandelion eradication patrol in my yard on a frequent basis using my specialized dandelion puller.
Photos by the author unless otherwise noted
About the author – Steve Oakes is a retired Main library associate and a former National Park Ranger at Denali, Carlsbad, and Cuyahoga Valley National Parks.
Oakes and his wife enjoy hiking, backpacking, bicycle touring, canoeing, and other outdoor adventures, including gardening and native plant landscaping.
For more information on planting native wildflowers in your landscape and the benefits thereof, visit the FL Schlagle branch of your own Kansas City, Kansas Public Library at Wyandotte County Lake Park, 4501 West Dr., Kansas City, KS 66109. There, you, too, can see what’s in bloom. And check out the butterfly garden as well.
The following website provides tips on the growing trend of native landscaping
© Steve Oakes