Harbingers of Spring

Photo of bloodroot

by Colleen O’Hara

You could argue that no flowers are more patient than spring ephemerals—waiting all year to pop up for only a week or two when the weather starts to warm. Keep an eye (or an ear) out for spring peepers, wood frogs, and salamanders, too. As the weather warms and the rains fall, they begin to emerge from their winter rest, ready to breed. 

Spring Ephemerals That Will Pop Up Soon

Spring ephemerals blooms brighten brown winter landscapes and fill an important ecological function by providing food sources to the season’s early pollinators.

You may have already seen oddly hooded Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) emerging along creek beds in January. Among the first to emerge, it can produce its own heat and attracts pollinators with its odorous flower. 

Photo of a skunk cabbage
Photo by Colleen O’Hara.

March is the perfect time to get outside and admire other harbingers of spring. Here are some to keep an eye out for:

Virginia Bluebell (Mertensia virginica) will begin to emerge toward the end of March. With blue and purple hued bell-shaped flowers, they are easy to spot in floodplains and slope forests, especially when they grow in masses. 

Photo of bluebell flowers
Bluebells. Photo by Joanne Hutton.

Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) is another March bloomer that grows in rich moist soil. Recognizable by its delicate pink to white flowers, the spring beauty is easy to spot along trails. The flowers close at night and on overcast days to protect the pollen.

Spring beauties. Photo by Toni Genberg.

Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullania) begin to bloom in March, too. Their flowers range from white to pink and resemble a pair of pantaloons hanging upside down. Look for them in moist shady areas.

Photo of dutchman's breeches
Dutchman’s breeches. Photo by Toni Genberg.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is another ephemeral that will begin to bloom in March. The white petals of the flower are surrounded by a cluster of yellow stamens. The flower gets its name from the red color of its sap, which can irritate the skin. They like moist shady areas. 

Photo of bloodroot
Bloodroot. Photo by Toni Genberg.

Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum) is often found alongside bloodroot and begins to bloom in March. It has mottled dark green or brown leaves (said to look like the skin of the brook trout) punctuated with small yellow flowers.  

Photo of a Trout Lily
Trout lily. Photo by Steve Katovich, Bugwood.org.

Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) is also an ephemeral but blooms a bit longer—from March to May. It starts with a white flower, followed by a large, lemon-shaped berry. It can be found in deciduous woods, shaded banks and moist habitats. Box turtles eat the fruit and spread the seed. (The foliage, roots, and unripe fruit are toxic to humans, however.)

Photo of Mayapple
Mayapple. Photo by Steve Katovich, Bugwood.org.

See: Plant NOVA Natives for more on local ephemerals.

Some reliable viewing spots for these and other ephemerals include:

To really get into the “weeds” of ephemerals, you can take a guided walk with a park naturalist at Windy Run.

Chorus of Frogs and Other Amphibians to Watch for Very Soon

Spring ephemerals aren’t the only things coming to life early. Local amphibians emerge during late February and early March. 

You might hear the distinctive chorus of spring peepers  (Pseudacris crucifer) in the evening. At only about 1.5 inches, these frogs are small, but their high-pitched “peeps” can carry quite a distance. (It’s actually the male peepers you hear, calling to find a mate.) Spring peepers overwinter under leaf litter, and emerge in the spring to breed and lay their eggs in vernal pools. One way to recognize a spring peeper is by the X pattern on its back. 

Photo of a spring peeper
Spring peeper. Photo by Linda Shapiro.

Even before the spring peepers, you’ll likely hear the chorus of “quacking” of male wood frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus), as they emerge to begin the breeding season. Wood frogs are about 2 to 3 inches in size and are very tolerant of the cold. In fact, they can tolerate having their bodies frozen during the cold winter months. The females, which are larger than the males in order to carry thousands of eggs, will lay their eggs in vernal pools. To identify a wood frog, look for a dark “bandit mask” around the eyes.

Photo of a wood frog
Wood frog. Photo by Linda Shapiro.

About the same time as spring peepers and wood frogs, you may also see spotted salamanders

(Ambystoma maculatum). These amphibians are recognizable by two rows of light yellow spots that run from their head to their tail. At around 7 to 10 inches long, they are our largest local salamanders. Your best chance of seeing them is during March when they make their way to vernal pools to breed. Most of the year they stay hidden beneath logs, rocks or burrows. 

For more on spotted salamanders visit http://capitalnaturalist.blogspot.com/2014/03/spotted-salamandersa.html

Photo of a spotted salamander
Spotted salamander. Photo by Linda Shapiro.

These amphibians would not be able to breed without the appearance of spring vernal pools, which are temporary ponds or wetlands that can dry up in the summer. They are relatively safe spots for frogs and other amphibians to lay their eggs. With very few predators, these shallow pools provide the right environment for these creatures to emerge and complete their lifecycles. They are also near woodland to provide food and shelter for the adults. Both Long Branch Nature Center and Gulf Branch Nature Center have vernal pools, so be sure to plan a visit. Dora Kelley Nature Park in Alexandria also has a marsh that is visited by all these amphibians during March.

See Capital Naturalist for more information on vernal pools. 

And get out there to see these wonderful Harbingers of Spring for yourself!

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