by Luke Buckardt
Although it may seem that winter will never let go of its tight grip, the forests and fields of Lake County are about to bloom with force. Spring is here despite the dusting of snow and below freezing nights. Over the next month, many wildflowers will poke out of the leaf litter and continue their cycle of life. Many of these flowers have very short adult lives, often only living for a brief amount of time. These spring ephemerals are an exciting part of our local ecology, but we are not the first generation to take note of their beauty and usefulness. Native american tribes, as well as the first European settlers, used the flowers both medicinally and spiritually. Although you may recognize the spring beauty or bleeding heart, there is a storied past behind each spring flower.
One of the first flowers to show itself after the snow melts is spring beauty (Claytonia virginica). The flower of each plant is open for an average of three days, and within that time it is pollinated by a plethora of insects. It is the perhaps the most abundant flower seen during the spring as it grows in a variety of habitats. Many woodland Indians used spring beauty as an immediate food source after long winters. The root is a tuber and is said to have a nutty flavor. The leaves were also eaten.
Perhaps one of the most commonly seen spring flowers is the dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). It is a weed, growing in backyards, along roads and everywhere in between. The flower is actually made of hundreds of florets, each being pollinated during the dandelion’s life. The dandelion has a fascinating history and has been associated with humans as early as 300 BC. Both the Europeans as well as many American Indian tribes, including the Potawatomi and Ojibwa, have used the dandelion for myriad medicinal purposes. The leaves of the plant have diuretic properties and can be used in salads or tea. Native Americans used the plant in order to help ailments such as kidney disease and swelling. Today, specialty winery’s still make dandelion wine from the flowers.
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) may already be up in the forests, as they are also one of the early bloomers. The plant gets its name from the “sap” it expels when the rhizome, or root section, is sliced. It is in fact not sap, but a form of latex. This plant, like many spring ephemerals, follows the Doctrine of Signatures, which states that plants were most useful through association. Because the plant secretes this red liquid, it was thought that it could cure blood related illness. The reddish liquid that comes out of the plant, in fact, had many uses by both settlers and Indians. Due to its strong color, it was used for dyes, both in painting one’s body as well as for coloring baskets and decoration. Bloodroot also has many medicinal properties. It was used to stop bleeding, treat the symptoms of fever and cure a sore throat. The Winnebago tribe used Bloodroot as a digestive aid and a way to sooth a toothache.
These are just some of the early spring flowers that will be showing up at Ryerson Woods and other local woodlands. Please remember that you cannot extract anything from the woods, so just enjoy the intrinsic beauty of the flowers. Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3, which will feature flowers during the later portion of the bloom. Spring is here, go enjoy it!
This blog post was written by Luke Buckardt, who assists Brushwood Center with social media. Luke graduated from Northland College in 2012 with a degree in biology. He grew up in Riverwoods and has roamed Ryerson Woods since he was young, knowing the preserve intimately.