“The first day of spring is one thing, and the first spring day is another. The difference between them is sometimes as great as a month.” –Henry Van Dyke
Ephemerals. It’s what we call spring wildflowers. Why? Ephemeral simply means “fleeting,” “transitory,” or “quickly fading.” Most years, they are here and gone like a whisper in a dark room. You only have a moment to try and register their presence, and then—well—you wonder if you imagined them.
Here in the Chicago region, I’ve been teaching wildflower field classes, despite the recent snow-covered landscape and the late prescribed prairie burns. Up until this weekend, there haven’t been a lot of blooms to see.
On the prairie, rattlesnake master is singed; its emergence paused temporarily by the fires.
Give it a week or two, and it will perk back up. Same for the tiny loose cabbages of pale Indian plantain, persevering through the cold and snows of last week.
Leaves don’t excite most folks much, but I feel a thrill of seeing the earliest sign of a prairie wildflower. It’s fun to see the pale Indian plantain at this stage, knowing it will be as tall as I am this summer.
If you look closely, there are a few wildflowers in bloom on the prairie proper. Pasque flowers are the stars of the burned prairie—if you can find them. Camouflaged perfectly against the bare soil. The spider hiding in the bloom is an added bonus.
Pretty big shadow for a tiny insect, isn’t it?
Because of the snow and the prescribed burn, my wildflower “field classes” ended up with a lot of PowerPoint to supplement our trail time. Even if the blooms aren’t cooperating on the woodland and the prairie, we can always have blooms on the screen, right? But, cheerful looking and necessary as those images may be, no PowerPoint image substitutes for the real thing. I can’t duplicate the smell of damp earth and leaves as we brush them aside to appreciate the new growth of Dutchman’s breeches in bud…
…or the delight we feel when we see the green of hepatica leaves that survived the winter.
The delights of a hike include finding the tiniest hepatica blossoms I’ve ever seen…
…or the serendipity of discovering pollinators flying their spring reconnaissance missions. Bloodroot makes the perfect landing pad.
There’s joy watching the play of light and shadow on bloodroot blooms…
…and stopping to admire the various stages of a trout lily’s emergence, backlit by the afternoon sun.
This week, we watch—with our fingers crossed—as the temperature climbs. 35 degrees. 40 degrees. 50 degrees plus. You can see the hope on people’s faces. Anticipation is building. Do you feel it? This is going to be a big week in the wildflower world. When the blooming starts, it will be like rush hour on the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago.
Will you be there to see them bloom? Make your plans now. Block your lunch hour. Set your alarm to get up early. Plan an outing in the evening after dinner. But don’t put it off. Once these spring ephemerals begin blooming, nothing will stop them. They are only here for a moment…and this year, their moment may be especially fleeting.
Get ready. Spring is here. For real, this time.
And it’s a beauty.
The opening quote is from Fisherman’s Luck and Other Uncertain Things by clergyman and writer Henry Van Dyke. (1852-1933). His books included The Other Wise Man, and his most famous sermon focused on hearing God’s voice through nature. A poet himself, he also wrote literary criticism, including a volume on Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poetry. He was Professor of English Literature at Princeton University (1900), and served as ambassador to the Netherlands and Luxembourg under President Woodrow Wilson. He and his wife had nine children.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): wild geraniums (Geranium maculatum), East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie eleven days after the prescribed burn, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium or Cacalia atriplicifolia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens or Anemone patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hepatica (Hepatica nobilis acuta), East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hepatica (Hepatica nobilis acuta), East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) with unknown pollinators, Schulenberg Prairie edges, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) bloom, Schulenberg Prairie edges, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; trout lily (Erythronium albidum) emerging, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Dutchman’s breeches in bud (Dicentra cucullaria), East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; spring beauties (Claytonia virginica), East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.