Seven Signs of Adirondack Spring

Carolina spring beauty photograph by Flickr user BlueRidgeKitties

The red-wing blackbirds have been back for weeks. The woodcocks are buzzing and twittering at twilight. Canada geese can be heard high overhead as they search for open water. Broad-wing hawks are whistling and swooping, starting to hook up for nesting. Signs of spring are in the air, but what about on the ground?

Our earliest wildflowers are sometimes inconspicuous, often barely taller than last fall’s leaf litter. The blossoms warrant a closer look, though, since many are elegantly detailed. Warm, sunny days can trigger an eruption of pastel colors on forest margins, wetland edges and in old fields.

In late April and early May look for a tiny fluffy yellow flower that pioneers called “son before father” because the blossom emerges before the leaves. Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) can be found in damp, disturbed areas and sometimes along hiking trails in a colony of diminutive plants with dark foliage. The common name refers to the leaf shape; the scientific name alludes to medicinal use as a cough remedy.

With its delicate pale pink petals accented by darker streaks, Carolina spring beauty (Claytonia caroliniana) is a favorite wildflower in the Northeast. It grows in the partial shade of moist woodlands, blooming at the end of April and early May.

Trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens) is a beautiful member of the heath family, known for leaves that are hairy on the bottom and shiny and evergreen on top. With half-inch fragrant pink or white flowers, it grows in sandy, shady forest.

Trout lily (Erythronium americanum) has a lovely nodding yellow bell and  green-brown mottled spear-shape leaves that are perfect camouflage against the dull forest floor. It’s one of our first flowers, blooming in woods before the foliage blocks the light. In Adirondack Life‘s May/June issue a photograph of a trout lily, by Johnathan Esper, is the back page.

Showy yellow flowers that look like big buttercups and glossy green heart-shape leaves make marsh marigold or cowslip (Caltha palustris) stand out in wet meadows and along streams. This is one early spring perennial that towers over the surrounding vegetation, growing in clumps that can be almost two feet tall.

Creeping snowberry (Gaultheria hispidula) is another early Adirondack bloomer, appearing in late April and May. A ground-hugging, shrubby perennial it has small greenish-white flowers. Sniff a leaf: the scent is very much like another low woodland plant, wintergreen.

Canada mayflower (Maianthemum canadense) shows up in—you guessed it—May, and its glossy heart-shape leaves are distinctive. A member of the lily family, the quarter-inch-wide flowers grow in clusters up the slender stalk. It is found in a range of forest habitats, from sunny wetlands to shady woods.

When temperatures warm in mid-May look for trillium, both painted and red, in deep woods and also along woods roads. Later in the month the lady’s slippers emerge in shady forest. The fascinating wetland insect-eaters pitcher plant and sundew flower in May and June, and our native water’s edge orchids begin their display as summer approaches.

Almost any mixed-forest hiking trail will harbor wildflowers but the Paul Smith’s College Visitor Interpretive Center describes wildflowers that can be found along specific trails and in its wetlands. Up Yonda Farm, in Bolton Landing, hosts a spring wildflower field trip on May 16.


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