Mayflowers in Stetson Meadows.

If you’ve taken a walk in the woods lately, you’ve probably noticed an abundance of buds. It’s hard to miss: right now nearly every deciduous tree has these colorful little formations on the tips of its branches.

The forest is rife with potential — soon the buds will burst, and blossom into leaves and flowers. Before long, we’ll see green everywhere, as Spring settles in to stay (for a little while anyway). This widespread greening is known in more scientific terms as leaf-out.

Right now we’re seeing more yellow than green. Forsythia and daffodils are in bloom, and thanks to the efforts of local garden clubs and other organizations, it seems there’s hardly a road around that doesn’t feature these bursts of brilliant color at its borders.

There are plenty more flowers in bloom this time of year, in a variety of different hues. But they’re also a lot less obvious. You have to go to the right places and look carefully to find them. So head to the forest, because May is the month of the spring woodland wildflowers known as ephemerals.

This short period of warming but still cool weather prior to leaf-out is ideal blossoming weather for such flowers as spring beauty, may flower, star flower, bloodroot, trillium, and other woodland ephemerals. These characteristically small flowers bloom for a short time only. Scan any woodland this time of year and you’ll likely see at least one of the following.

Spring Beauty: A member of the purslane family, this fragile pale pink flower with deep pink veins grows in loose clusters in moist woods, thickets and clearings. It has a yellow base and dark green leaves, and tends to lie low to the ground.

Canada Mayflower: With a short, zigzag stem and shiny heart-shaped leaves, this woodland plant — a member of the lily family — features a dense cluster of tiny white flowers and yellow-white berries. It is often found in carpet-like colonies, spread across upland woods and clearings.

Star Flower: This delicate yet striking member of the primrose family features a circle of 5-9 sharp-pointed leaves, from which emerges a star-shaped white flower. For habitat, it prefers cool woodlands and peaty forest slopes.

Bloodroot: A member of the poppy family, this flower features white petals and a golden-orange center, plus light blue-green leaves. Sensitive to sunlight, bloodroot’s petals lie flat in the morning, stand erect in the late afternoon, and close up in the evening. It can be found along shaded roadsides and the borders of woodlands and streams. Bloodroot takes its name from the red juice contained in its stem, a substance used by native tribes as both an insect repellent and a dye.

May Apple: This member of the barberry family features gigantic leaves — often a foot in diameter — and a lemon-like fruit sometimes known as wild lemon. Its unpleasant-smelling flower, with waxy white petals, resembles the apple blossom. It favors damp, dense woods and shady clearings.

Trillium: The large variety of trillium — members of the lily family — are woodland plants with stout purple-based stems. Flowers range in color from white to pink to maroon to brown-purple-red. Types include nodding (where the flower “nods” below the leaves), painted (with a splash of pink in the middle of a white flower) and purple, which features a smell so unpleasant that it attracts carrion flies.

A close relative is wild oats (a.k.a. sessile bellwort), with one or two creamy yellow, drooping flowers on angled stem. All of these grow in woods and thickets.

Spring ephemerals can be found in almost any deciduous woodland, especially those which border small brooks or red maple swamps. A favorite spot to see them is the parcel of forest and wetland between Norwell’s Police Station and Gaffield Park. Other good sites include Marshfield’s Nelson Forest, Pembroke’s Tucker Reservation, Norwell’s Donovan Property, Duxbury’s North Hill Marsh.

by Kezia Bacon, Assistant Director, North and South Rivers Watershed Association
May 1997