Folklore of the Forest Floor: Part 1

Brushwood Center in spring with a field of spring beauty in bloom in the grass.
Brushwood Center in spring with a field of spring beauty in bloom in the grass.

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.

Spring beauty
Spring beauty

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
Bloodroot in bloom

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!

 

luke buckardt 11.14.13This 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.

A Blanket of Snow

Icicles on log cabin at Ryerson Woods. Photo by Luke Buckardt.
Icicles on log cabin at Ryerson Woods. Photo by Luke Buckardt.

It is December in northern Illinois, and that means the cold grip of winter is upon us.  With the change in temperature comes a certain change in precipitation.  Snow is here.  When Ryerson Woods conservation area is blanketed with a fresh snow, it is one of the most peaceful experiences.  Snow has a great impact on forest systems, and is a necessity to the natural cycle of the seasons.

Having a snow pack on the forest floor does assist in maintaining the health of an area.  Most importantly, it affects the soil.  The layer of snow acts as a blanket, keeping the soil insulated.  This insulation prevents the soil from actually freezing.   Warmer soil keeps root systems healthy and vibrant throughout the winter.  When snow is present, fine roots are able to stay healthy and maintain their productivity.  If snow is not present, these roots often die due to intense cold.  When roots are disrupted in the winter, they have an increased loss of carbon and nitrogen.

Sweeper ice on Des Plaines River. Photo by Luke Buckardt.
Sweeper ice on Des Plaines River. Photo by Luke Buckardt.

When there is no snow pack, the frozen soil cannot hold carbon.  This is a looming issue, as the eastern forest of North America absorb roughly 15 percent of the total carbon in the world.  If they continue to loss snow pack, the forests ability to be a carbon sink may be tested.  This is one of the main concerns of a global temperature change.  If our snow pack is continually lower than what it once was, we will lose large amounts of carbon to the air.  When snow melts in the warmer months, it is necessary water for the soil.   If we do not have snow, it can easily put forests into drought conditions before the growing season, slowing productivity.

Snow also plays a large role in the shaping of the forest canopy   Heavy snow and winds during winter storms affect the branch systems of many trees.  Dead branches, as well as some live ones, will inevitably break from this sitting snow.  The snow opens the canopy, and allows in more light.  This will regenerate certain tree growth.  By increasing the amount of light to the forest floor, these gaps in the canopy assist the overall productivity of the forest.

Black-capped Chickadee by Alain Wolf from Wikimedia Commons
Black-capped Chickadee by Alain Wolf from Wikimedia Commons

A snowy winter also affects the fauna within a forest.  When temperatures drop and ice freezes over most small lakes and rivers, it can be very difficult for animals to find drinking water.  Snow is an integral fix to this situation.  Many birds, such as Black-capped Chickadees, actually eat snow to gain water necessary for survival.  Also, snow acts as great cover for many smaller mammals.  If you walk in a fresh snow, you may see tubes burrowed into the snow.  Mice and voles often create intricate networks for tunnels throughout the snow, even making nests.  The snow gives protection from top predators, and also provides the small mammals with insulation.

Finally, snow is a great addition to the woods for anyone wanted to experience winter.  It is aesthetically pleasing and can be used for recreation.  Many people use the ski trails at Ryerson woods.  Cross-country skiing is a great way to get exercise and see lots of forest quickly.  Snowshoes are also a great way to play in the snow, but they usually require a very deep snow pack to be effective.  Visit Brushwood Center’s website for upcoming programs, such as Introduction to Snowshoeing (January 25, 2014) and Introduction to Cross-country Skiing (February 1, 2014).

Although it may make driving a hassle, snow in the wintertime is a wonderful thing that should welcomed.  The forest in northern Illinois have adapted for annual snow, and hopefully it will be present all winter, creating a more healthy forest.

luke buckardt 11.14.13This 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.