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Take Me Outside

Take Me Outside: Find the forest's hidden spring blooms

April showers have been uncommon this spring, but there will still be May flowers carpeting the forest floor. These spring beauties provide a good reason to venture into the woods in the coming weeks.

Canada mayflowers, also known as wild-lily-of-the-valley, are common in our forests. Their shiny, heart-shaped leaves poke up from the ground as green spikes before they unfurl to provide a lush ground cover of 2- to 6-inch-tall plants. Some plants have single leaves, but those that produce two or three leaves will also put forth a cluster of lacey, white flowers on a little stalk or “raceme.” Close examination of individual flowers reveals four male stamens surrounding the female pistil of each minute bloom. But don’t just look at this dainty flower, take a good sniff. The fragrance is a sweet spring perfume.

If you are interested in a bit more color, another fairly common, though often overlooked petite flower is the fringed polygala. It is also called “bird on the wing” or “gay wings.” The deep pink petals spread out like the wings, head and neck of a tiny bird. Where the beak of the bird would be, the flower has fringes that hold the pollen. With such a cheerful color and shape, it’s easy to imagine this little flower taking flight and mingling among the bright plumes of the spring birds as they migrate back to our woods.

Color and fragrance are both tools that plants use to attract animal pollinators to their flowers. Once an insect or bird arrives, there is usually a reward in the form of sweet nectar. How insects get to that nectar can be simple, but not in the case of the lady slipper.

The common pink lady slipper flower is shaped like a pouch with an opening at the front and another at the back. When a medium sized bumblebee enters the front opening the flaps close behind it, making it impossible for the bee to exit the way it came in. The bee must continue into the sac, passing by a bright green sticky pad that is the female part of the flower. If the bee has any pollen from other lady slippers on its back, that pollen rubs off onto the sticky pad, thus pollinating the flower.

With only one choice but to continue through this little tunnel, the bee proceeds to one of two holes at the back of the flower. As it emerges, it brushes against the male parts, collecting new pollen, which it may distribute to the next flower it visits.

Those artfully matched features between the fuzzy bumblebee and the trap-like lady slipper flower are just one example of this plant’s amazing adaptations.

Another occurs out of sight, in the soil. The dust-like seeds of the lady slipper (dispersed in the fall) are dependent on a particular fungus in the soil to break down their seed coat so they can germinate. As the plant develops, the fungus integrates into the roots or corms and helps the lady slipper absorb minerals and other nutrients from the soil. In turn, energy captured by the lady slipper through photosynthesis is transferred to the fungi.

This symbiotic relationship between plant and fungus is one reason why it is so difficult to transplant lady slippers successfully. Yet, because of the beauty and unusual nature of this woodland orchid, many people have tried to move or pick the flowers to enjoy them in their yard or home.

It is not illegal to pick the pink lady slipper in New Hampshire. However several other species such as the ram’s head and the yellow lady slippers are endangered or threatened.

Removing any of these plants, including the pink one, from public property or private land without the permission of the owner is prohibited.

Regardless of the legal status, because transplanting only works about 5 percent of the time, it is best to enjoy this flower in the place where you find it. If left undisturbed, lady slippers survive an average of 20 years and can live to be 100!

So, make note of where you see them this spring and go back to enjoy this plant and some of the other spring beauties for years to come.

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