Spring wildflowers are garden stars in the wooded area of South Carolina Botanical Garden’s Natural Heritage Trail from February to May. The spring herbaceous layer is exceptionally diverse in environments with rich soils containing lots of organic material. Every day something new appears in the landscape!
Spring wildflowers synchronize their lifecycles to the trees above them. Many are spring ephemerals: they pop up, flower, set seed, and die back before the trees completely leaf out. Once the temperatures warm, all signs of Spring beauty disappear. Hepatica is not ephemeral. Hepatica leaves persist and enable it to photosynthesize throughout the year. Look for its lobed leaves on the forest floor all year long.
These plants adapt in other ways to cold temperatures and challenging environmental conditions. Their small stature offers them some protection from harsh weather. Bloodroot flowers are protected by a single enveloping leaf when they first emerge. If you look closely at hepatica, the stems and leaves are covered by tiny hairs that act as insulation. Deer are dissuaded from browsing Jack-in-the-Pulpit and Mayapple by the bitter chemicals each contains. Many of these plants only open their flowers when it’s warm enough for their pollinators to be out. Bloodroot flowers open at 46°, and their primary pollinators, bumblebees, fly at 41°. If pollinators don’t visit, asexual reproduction comes to the fore. Plants are spread instead by stolons, rhizomes, or division of the underground structures.
Many of these spring flowers are an important nectar source for early emerging native bees and other insects. Some bees are generalists and visit multiple flower types. Other bees are more selective, relying on specific flowers: the spring beauty bee and trout lily mining bee are two examples. Butterflies, beetles, flies, and other insects are also reliant on these flowers for nectar and pollen. The red-neck false blister beetle feasts on trout lily pollen (left).
Seed dispersal for spring wildflowers is often accomplished by helpful ants. Ants are attracted to a small fleshy, protein-rich addition to the seed called an elaiosome. Once they find a seed, they take it back to their nest to feed their offspring the elaiosome and then discard the seed in the leaf litter. Spring wildflower seeds and fruits are important food for small mammals, birds, and reptiles.
When you visit your local woods, search out these diverse miniature beauties and check out who is visiting them!