There will be that unmistakable musty, fermented smell. You'll sink your shoes into half a foot of leaf litter slowly rotting into rich loam. Although trees have only a tracery of leaves, patches of local forests soon will be covered with a garland of woodland wildflowers.
Some are so tiny you have to bend close to the ground to see them; others so beautiful they take your breath away. A few are so smelly you hope not to walk on them and crush their shoots. Many have fascinating names and a wealth of ancient lore in their history.
Most spring wildflowers bloom but a few weeks. By early June the trees will have filled out with leaves that draw a green curtain over the forest floor, blocking the sunlight that brings early wildflowers to bloom.
There are more than 15,000 wildflowers north of the Mexican border. They have names like Tread Softly, Deertongue, Rattlesnake Master, Lizard's Tails and Quaker Ladies. There's Virgin's Bower, Inside Out Flower, Heal All, Angel's Trumpets and Marsh Mallows, whose roots were the original source of the candy we roast over summer campfires.
American Indians knew many ways to use native wildflowers. They taught early Colonists which could be eaten or used for dyes, which were for poultices and purges, medicines, drinking concoctions and confections.
To preserve our native flowers today, they should never be pulled up by their roots, for that would destroy both the underground tubers and seed-producing flowers by which they're spread. For complex reasons, wildflowers generally wither far more quickly when picked than cultivated flowers do.
Here is a sampling of local wildflowers to look for on a spring walk through thickets in and around Washington. Young children are marvelous companions on such a walk; being closer to the ground they spot species more quickly than we do. And too, everything we find in nature seems a wonderment to a child, a secret revealed. It becomes so for us too. Spring Beauties--Tiny pink-striped harbingers of spring rarely found alone, but likely to form such a thick carpet that they appear to be a patch of snow from a distance. Each flower opens for only one day.
The underground corms look like small new potatoes, hence the nickname "Fairy Spuds," which the Indians favored. By the middle of May, Spring Beauties have disappeared, as quickly and mysteriously as they came. Hepatica--Usually an intense lavender, but occasionally white or pinkish. This member of the buttercup family has distinctive leaves forming three round lobes that earlier generations thought resembled the human liver (hepatica means liver in Latin) and was therefore fed to people with liver ailments.
Hepatica's stems are oddly hairy, a texture which fascinates children. May Apple--Prefers marshy patches of woods. Tall, wide umbrella-like leaves children love to lift, to discover a large solitary flower nodding underneath.
By mid-summer, the flower will have become a good-sized lemon-like edible berry, with a flavor described by a 19th-century botanist as "somewhat mawkish, beloved by pigs, raccoons and small boys." The ripe fruit makes a passable jam. Jack-in-the-Pulpit--Sometimes grows as tall as three feet. "Jack" is the fleshy whitish spike sticking out of a large striped bract, appearing to have a hood protecting its inhabitant. This odd plant smells like a stagnant pool, an odor mosquitoes find irresistible.
Also known as "Indian turnip" because its large underground taproots--though bitter, burning and toxic when eaten raw--were boiled and consumed by Indians. By late summer, "Jack" has metamorphosed into a cluster of bright red berries devoured by birds. Bloodroot--A fragile, solitary white star-like flower on a single stem. A large blue-green leaf enfolds the flower and does not open until the flower has bloomed. Bloodroot flowers open in full sun, closing each day at dusk.
Its underground root, when slit, produces a bright red juice, used by Indians as a dye for baskets, clothing and body paint. Skunk Cabbage--Peculiarly foul-smelling, with cabbage-like leaves. Often among the earliest of all wildflowers to bloom. In fact, this smelly plant manufactures its own metabolic heat that melts snow to provide water for growth. The fetid odor is especially attractive to flies, which then provide cross-pollination.
Indians crushed the leaves of this strange purple-and-green knob-like plant, thinking that inhaling the smell would drive away headache. Undoubtedly, sufferers felt immediate relief upon ceasing such a remedy and pronounced it effective. Rue Anemone--One of the tinest, most delicate and beautiful of the white wildflowers, often only about 4 inches tall. A member of the buttercup family, its leaves are similar to meadow rues, its flowers to anemones, hence its name. Solomon's Seal--A prolific, easy-to-spot wildflower with a graceful arching stem often a foot long, and pendulous white-yellow bell-shaped flowers growing from each leaf axil. One opinion on source of its name: Scars on the rhizome left naturally by earlier flower stalks were thought to resemble King Solomon's office seal.
Wrote 16th-century herbalist John Gerard: "The root taketh away in one night, or two at the most, any bruise, blacke or blew spots gotten by falls or women's wilfulnesse, in stumbling upon their hasty husbands' fists, or the like." Wild Geranium--Notable for its bright blue and lavender flowers; also known as cranesbill. Actually a true geranium, and does not resemble the common annual geranium, although they are close relatives. Often found in stunning masses, wild geranium is also distinguished by its deeply lobed, tooth-like leaves.
The name cranesbill refers to the plant's beaked seed pods. If you are lucky enough to come upon a cranesbill pod ready to open you may see that it literally bursts with seeds, sometimes catapulting them as far as 22 feet.
Pipsissewa--Named by the Cree Indians, meaning "it breaks into small pieces." They believed the leaves were effective in breaking down kidney stones, and pipsissewa tonic was a popular home remedy well into this century. The flowers are waxy in look and feel, whitish or pinkish in color, nodding in clusters on stems. Trailing Arbutus--Among the most exquisitely fragrant of all wildflowers. So often filched from its natural woods that it is on endangered-species lists. A creeping plant, with evergreen leaves and white or pink flowers. Sometimes blooms as early as February. Pussy Toes--A favorite, of course, with children. The fluffy parchment-colored flowerheads are crowded together in a cluster which looks and feels like cats' paws. Indian Pipe--Looks like white wax pipes growing out of the ground upside down. Contains no chlorophyll and instead of depending on photosynthesis, relies on small wood-rotting fungi in the soil to free nutrients for its use. The plant is almost translucent when alive, but rapidly turns black if picked.
Caution: Do not experiment with eating any part of the wildflowers you find. According to Rock Creek Nature Center naturalist Bill Rudolph:
"There are dangerous substances in a lot of plants, so eating anything experimentally must be avoided." This is because "plant toxins are highly complex chemicals that serve the purpose of discouraging other plants and animals from disturbing the roots of wildflowers."
Myra Patner is a Washington free-lance writer specializing in articles about the family.