Northland Nature: Fiddleheads rise from the forest floorBy the time May exits and we step into the new month of June, we can look out onto a forest where all the trees have green leaves.
By the time May exits and we step into the new month of June, we can look out onto a forest where all the trees have green leaves.
The large trees of oak and basswood, along with a varied trio of ash, sumac and bigtooth aspen, are the last ones to grow this green foliage. Even these late arrivals take on this color and the woods becomes one of leafy and shady conditions for the next several months.
This year, the slow and cool spring has stretched all the way through May. The month that is usually our greening time has become one of trying to get green.
Slow leafing of the tall trees has its advantages for us, and I have noticed that the birds that frequently get lost in the upper foliage were easier to observe than usual. I have been able to get excellent views of warblers, vireos and flycatchers as they seek meals.
The sunlight has also been able to penetrate to the forest floor throughout this month. Typically, the last week of May is one of shade. Vernal wildflowers that grow and bloom during bright times are making the best of this slow greening.
These plants were also behind normal time this spring, and during a recent walk I was able to locate only about a dozen kinds of flowers, about half of what I normally find at this time.
Hepatica, spring beauty, bloodroot, trout-lily, bellwort, trillium, wood anemone, wild strawberry, wild ginger, marsh marigold and violets showed their petals. I hope the others that normally are in bloom by this date will find enough light to bloom a bit later.
Even though several species were not flowering, their green leaves spread across the forest floor. These plants, mixed with the sedges and wild leek so common here, made for a pleasant green scene, even if other colors may have been absent.
Among the leaves and blooms of the flowering plants are the new growths of non-flowering ones as well, the ferns.
Each May my spring wildflower walks are made more attractive with the addition of the new fern growths. Ferns do not have flowers, and instead put forth a large new leaf each year from an underground stem. Living as they do, the stem may be many years old, and survives winter beneath the soil.
With no flowers, ferns belong to a different group of plants, and so have their own terminology. The subterranean stem is called a rhizome. The leaf that grows up from it is known as a frond. And since the leaves unfold in an appearance somewhat like that of scrolls, they are called fiddleheads.
Typically, May is fiddlehead season. Each fern begins its above-ground life with its own type of fiddlehead. The shady woods of the Northland are excellent places for these plants, and ferns thrive here throughout the summer.
Though they can be highly varied, most of the woods that I’ve walked in reveals about ten to fifteen kinds. Each has a unique frond and, in spring, the fiddlehead can be used to recognize its species.
During my walks in the past week, I’ve found the fiddleheads of several kinds, but it is the growths of three large ferns that stand out and become easy to identify. All three, the ostrich fern, interrupted fern and lady fern, abound in the woods, and all grow to be about two- to three feet tall, more in wet years.
And with the moisture that we received in the past couple of months, the fiddleheads appear ready to go.
Ostrich fiddleheads are a rich dark green. Those of the interrupted fern are very hairy, causing the growth to appear almost gray. And the lady fern has a green leafy part with a covering of black threads and scales. They will frequently grow near each other and I have many times seen all during a single walk on a trail.
Among some foragers, fiddleheads are considered a delicacy and they add a delight to meals of spring. I have found that the best advice is that some fiddleheads are edible, and gathering and eating them is similar to doing so with mushrooms. Collect them with an expert.
But eaten or not, the addition of fiddleheads to our forest flora is a visual delight. Soon they’ll rapidly open to the new fern fronds that will grace the shady woods all summer.
Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” Contact him c/o firstname.lastname@example.org.