As a student biologist at the NCC, I get to be outside almost every day to explore the unique habitats in Canada’s Capital Greenbelt. One of the things that I like most about my job: it has given me the opportunity to watch the seasons change. I’m especially enchanted by spring, because the woodlands are always evolving. Every month, there is something new blooming in the forest, so it never quite looks the same.
The emergence of spring wildflowers
Recent sunshine and warm days have prompted the emergence of spring wildflowers in the Greenbelt. Among the earliest of bloomers are the spring ephemerals. These flowers blossom in the brief period of spring before trees have their leaves, allowing them to soak up plenty of sunlight without any competition. One of our favourite early-spring ephemerals is the red trillium, which grows throughout the Greenbelt, from the shady woods of Stony Swamp to the forests surrounding the Mer Bleue Bog. Other early spring flowers to look out for are yellow trout lily and spring beauty.
Canada’s Capital is home to many species of trillium, in both white and red — all of which emerge in late April or early May. Red trilliums appear early and, like their white counterpart, have large flat leaves that lie perpendicular to the ground. This lets the trilliums flourish in woodlands that will soon become shady.
One distinctive feature about these flowers is their scent, which is not exactly the sweet fragrance you would expect from a spring wildflower. In fact, their scent is downright repulsive. Trilliums are pollinated by flies, so many of their features have evolved specifically to attract these insect pollinators, including their distinctive scent, which is reminiscent of rotting meat. The vibrant red-purple colour of the red trillium gives them an additional edge, as it resembles carrion. Although these features may not appeal to us as much as they do to flies, we can certainly enjoy these flowers from a distance, and take their blooms as a reassurance that spring is truly on its way.
Yellow trout lily
Another early bloomer is the yellow trout lily, also known as the dogtooth violet. These flowers emerge around the same time as trilliums. Their leaves can already be seen all over the Greenbelt, coming up practically as soon as the snow has melted and the ground begins to warm up. Mottled grey-brown leaves give the plant its name, as the colouring is said to resemble the skin of a trout. To spread their growth, trout lilies enlist the help of ants by trading a tasty snack for the ant’s mobility services. Trout lilies produce an elaiosome, which is essentially a nutrient-rich food source attached to the seed. It encourages ants to collect the seeds and bring them back underground to their colonies, providing the seeds with the perfect place to sprout.
The delicate, pale pink or white flowers of the spring beauty are certainly eye-catching, but it is not our eyes that these flowers have been designed to catch. Flowering in May, these showy blooms are designed specifically to attract insects for pollination. The flowers act as a long-range attractant, enticing insects to come take a closer look. Their petals might appear white to us, but the ultraviolet light these flowers reflect actually appears bright purple to bees, which makes these flowers particularly appealing to them. Additionally, the delicate pink lines seen on the petals guide the pollinators directly to the pollen. These features of spring beauty look striking to us, and are irresistible to their insect pollinators.
With spring finally under way, it’s now time to get out and explore the Greenbelt, and enjoy the colours of these spring ephemerals.