Finding the early signs of spring on the forest floor Featured

  • Written by  Matthew Ross, Owens Community College Landscape Turfgrass Management Instructor
Finding the early signs of spring on the forest floor

Gardeners are accustomed to the traditional signs of the arrival of spring with beautiful blooming bulbs, the breaking buds of flowering trees, and the vibrant yellow flowers of forsythia shrubs.  However, there are other indicators that arise when the last snows have melted and the sounds of song birds returns to Catawba Island and the surrounding region. Native flowering plants take center stage from late March through the month of April and retreat in the heat of the summer. This phenomenal transition primarily refers to a group of woodland plants called spring ephemerals, and is part of what makes the temperate forests of northern Ohio so breathtaking.

There is a diverse group of spring bloomers that are found in patches where the sunlight penetrates the forest floor, through the bare branches of the deciduous canopy. The most popular and one of the most sought after flowers is the trillium or wake-robin (Trillium sp.). Trilliums are typically characterized by a unique three-petal flower and are usually white.  The more elusive pinks, yellows, and purples are thought to bring goodluck to those that have been blessed to find them. Lady slippers (Cypripedium calceolus) and trout lilies (Erythronium americanum) grace the landscape with yellow blooms, while spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) carpets other patches with a pristine pink to complete the palette of the early spring woods.

After searching the fragmented deciduous forests of Catawba, I have noticed a plethora of another rare emergent plant, Allium tricoccum, better known as wild ramps. Their unassuming clumps of thick, green leaves arrive before many home lawns start to re-flush, and are often overlooked. This resource has gained notoriety for its hearty flavor and is often highlighted on Food Network Challenges.  A seasonal, gourmet delicacy that advanced boy scouts and foragers are well aware of could even be in your backyard without you even knowing.

If you decide to search and harvest this plant you should receive permission to prevent any illegal poaching, and potentially damaging a sensitive ecosystem.  It is always best to look in your yard or that of a good friend.  It can be a great experience for the whole family to enjoy.  Ramps have a distinct odor when the leaves are crushed.  To properly identify this edible species you can use a field guide, however, they are often easily observed in small patches with blades that are typically wider than an adults thumb.  If you are successful at finding a stand of wild ramps, do not overdo it.  You should only take a small portion of the plants to avoid thinning the stand too much which could deplete their population and even allow invasive species like garlic mustard to take over.

To learn more about identifying the spring ephemerals while sharing a gourmet breakfast made with locally sourced produce, consider attending an all day workshop and ramp harvest at McKenna’s Inn Bed and Breakfast on Catawba. This event will instruct those interested about how to find, photograph, and appreciate a diverse selection of beautiful spring bloomers in a picturesque setting.  You will get a chance to enjoy the rich hearty flavor of ramps from the 4-acre property.  The cost of the event is $65 and it starts at 9:30 a.m. and includes breakfast, lecture and native plant workshop, a stroll through cedar woods, and concludes with appetizers made from ramps collected on the property and other locally sourced produce.  Each participant will take home a small assortment of native plants and are entered into a drawing for additional prizes. Call Joe Jessen at McKenna's Inn to sign-up at 419- 341-6033.

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