Anyone who wanders through our parks in April can’t help but notice the emerging spring. As Emerson penned, that the “earth laughs in flowers,” and indeed April is rich with such laughter. Wooded trails are alive with the hues of the Virginia Bluebell, Hepatica, Bloodroot and Bellflower. These spring woodland wildflowers all share their beauty in a quick burst of activity before the trees cast off their winter slumber and leaf-out for the season. Most people are familiar with these woodland ephemeral wildflowers and thankfully greet their brief show of color after a long, gray winter.
Woodlands are not the only habitats with a spring show of color. We often think of our prairies as coming into their own splendor later in the year, but there are several spring blooming flowers that are worth seeking out. Spring bloomers in the prairie are often hidden among the old stalks of last year’s growth. If you happen to come across a prairie that has had a prescribed burn since last fall, it is much easier to locate these diminutive wildflowers.
One of my favorite spring prairie wildflowers is the Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia). It has a basal rosette of bright green leaves that can reach up to 6 inches in length and 2 ½ inches wide. Out of this rosette can spring up one or more green or reddish colored flowering stalks. Atop the foot-long stalk, an umbel of several flowers dangle downward. Each individual flower has five white to pinkish petals that reflex upward. A bright yellow grouping of pollen bearing parts protrudes from the petals. The flower-heads look like a collection of shooting stars, hence the common name.
These flowers begin to bloom in mid-April and will persist for about a month. Once they go to seed, the leaves die-off and the dry seed heads will be the only remaining evidence of their spring glory. In the prairie habitat, most plants persist throughout the growing season. This one is much more ephemeral, and takes full advantage of the lack of growing competition in the early spring.
When Shooting Stars are in bloom, they are visited by several native bees. Interestingly, their flowers don’t produce any nectar, but their protruding stamens are loaded with pollen, which is a crucial source of protein for native bees, and especially the queens of several bumblebee species that are emerging from hibernation in early spring. These visiting queens will rapidly contract their thoracic muscles, causing a resonance vibration that loosens the pollen. It is a process known as “buzz pollination.” There are several other species of native bees that will also visit these spring bloomers.
In the prairie planting at the Peoria Park District’s Tawny Oaks, we scattered Shooting Star seed in 2012. It took five years before we saw our first bloom. Each year we find a few more, but it is a very slow process, and after eight years, we still only have a handful of plants. In an ancient, native prairie there can be thousands of individuals in bloom. A couple of places to see these displays of Shooting Star include Weston Cemetery Prairie Nature Preserve in McLean County along U.S. Route 24, and Manito Prairie Nature Preserve in southern Tazewell County along East Manito Road. Closer to home, you can find them in smaller numbers at Brimfield Railroad Prairie Nature Preserve in Peoria County along Forney Road.
Mid-April is prime time to get out and search for this spring blooming prairie gem. Emerson said it well –– “The earth laughs in flowers.” We all could use a little more laughter in our lives, so get out and seek the joy.
Mike Miller is supervisor of environmental and interpretive services at Peoria Park District.