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.

Thaw

A March thaw at Ryerson Woods.
Snow melt at Ryerson Woods.

by Luke Buckardt

Although it seems that we may never escape this winter’s grasp, spring is near.  This transition into a warmer season is driven by a lengthening day and more direct sunlight.  Every year, spring brings about a plethora of changes to our local environment.  We think of ephemeral flowers and migrating songbirds, but what happens to the environment during the early stages of the transition?  The impending thaw is something we can look forward to, but it also brings many necessary changes to Ryerson Woods.

When the first thaw occurs, the ground is usually still frozen on the surface, which creates an impermeable surface.  The water needs somewhere to go, so it acts as it would during a heavy rain.  Water is affected by gravity, and it will go to the lowest point possible.  In many areas, including our own corner of Lake County, this is in a river or stream.

The Des Plaines River overflowed its banks last spring.
The Des Plaines River overflowed its banks last spring.

The Des Plaines River breaks out of its banks and causes flooding, which varies from year to year depending on many factors.  These include snow totals, the speed of the melt, and any additional precipitation that occurs during a thaw.  Flooding is considered a nuisance for many reasons.  It affects homeowners along the river and can close streets.  However, the annual spring flood plays an essential part in developing and sustaining a healthy ecosystem.  Each year, the flood alters the river landscape, rearranging downed trees and other debris.  This constant change keeps habitat available for many species.  This extra material can accumulate in the river, making necessary habitat for native fish and invertebrate species.  It can also pile up along the river, creating protection for other native fauna.   Debris carried by floods can alter the entire hydrology of a river or stream.

Snow melt and river flooding creates vernal pools at Ryerson Woods.
Snow melt and river flooding creates vernal pools at Ryerson Woods.

Floodwaters often creep into the riparian areas alongside the river, which adds many benefits to a habitat.  When the water is out of its banks, it often slows down due to increased vegetation and a less channeled path.  When the water slows, it deposits the suspended sediments.  These are often very nutrient-rich.  Once the water recedes, the sediment is left along the banks and regenerates the nutrient levels along the river.  This leads to an increase in productivity for both plants and animals that are found within a riparian zone.

Finally, flooding benefits the diversification of plants along a river.  The floods transport seeds down river.  This increases diversity within a plant community, but it also perpetuates the success of many species.  The river can carry seeds or pollen to new areas where they have not been previously.  This aids in the genetic diversification of a plant species, which ultimately strengthens that plants ability to survive.

Blue-spotted salamander.  © Scott Albert; www.ilherps.com
Blue-spotted salamander.
© Scott Albert; www.ilherps.com

Once the thaw begins, it also creates another important habitat for many species in Lake County.  When water cannot travel to a stream or river, it pools in low-lying areas.  These temporary vernal pools are an extremely important wetland for many plant and animal species.  Because they are often void of predators, these ponds attract many species of amphibian.  Frogs and salamanders live close to vernal ponds year round, but during the spring thaw, they flock to the area for mating purposes.  They attract mating partners in the water, mate, and lay eggs.  Because these areas are void of constant aquatic predation, they are perfect for perpetuating a species.  Chorus frogs, spring peepers, and wood frogs all use these vernal ponds for mating.   The blue-spotted salamander frequents vernal ponds of Lake County in order to mate and lay eggs.  These habitats are necessary for some of the county’s most endangered species, particularly the tiger salamander.  For just a few weeks out of the year, these pools become extremely busy areas in the forest.

wood frog by Luke Buckardt
Spring peepers, a tiny species of frog, are often referred to as the “harbinger of spring.” As soon as things thaw in the spring, they leave the trees to converge upon vernal pools where they sing to attract a mate and breed. Photo by Luke Buckardt.

The spring thaw is a wonderful thing for all the inhabitants of Lake County.  Although it can cause some temporary issues for people, the thaw is essential in the perpetuation of many species of plants and animals.  Now all we can do is wait and enjoy the thaw when it comes.  It is just the first step in a very exciting transitional time for the local environment.

This 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.