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Drooping bellworts among spring's quickest growing wildflowers

Recent rains and warm weather have caused a quick upsurge in the spring plants. Within the last two weeks, the pace-setting hepatica and bloodroots have been joined by at least a dozen more. These plants live at a quick rate and need to gather av...

Recent rains and warm weather have caused a quick upsurge in the spring plants. Within the last two weeks, the pace-setting hepatica and bloodroots have been joined by at least a dozen more. These plants live at a quick rate and need to gather available sunlight before the leafy canopy overhead shades them. And with each day, the small green leaves of the trees get bigger.
Visiting a deciduous forest at this time can give the observant hiker views of many flowers that are now blooming.
In addition to the hepatica and bloodroot are spring beauties. At places, these tiny pink flowers carpet the forest floor. White wood anemone or toothwort are now open, too. The violets of purple, yellow and white all flourish as well. Trout-lilies, both yellow and white, open now, right on schedule.
Large-flower trilliums, maybe the biggest flowers in the forest, open their three-petal white blossoms. Soon they'll take over some woods. And yellow marsh marigolds will do the same in the nearby wet areas.
Among these varied vernal flowers are a couple of drooping plants. While many blossoms are showy and are held high, out in the open, to attract the attention of potential pollinators, the bellworts hang theirs down. Fast-growing wildflowers in spring are common, but bellworts may be one of the speediest as they grow up to a foot tall in two weeks. Now the plants stand in full bloom but drooping, as though they are exhausted from such rapid growth. The yellow petals may be harder to see than expected. The yellow blossom, with six petals, hangs like a bell; reminding early naturalists of a bell. Wort, when spelled with an o, means plant; thus bellwort.
Yellow flowers may extend down about 2 inches from the equal-sized leaves. Plants hold many more drooping leaves than flowers. It is not unusual to see these flowers growing in a clump with many others of their kind. Sometimes nearby a smaller and paler version of a bellwort is blooming, too.
This smaller cousin is known as wild oats or pale bellwort. Wild oats, which gets its name from the oat-like leaves, has a much more cream-colored flower than the taller bellwort. Its flower, however, does look more like a bell than the larger ones. Wild oats is quite common at this time in the deciduous forests, but with fewer and lighter flowers, it is not well known.
The Latin or scientific name for bellworts, Uvularia, is also interesting. This name refers to the uvula, the flap of material that hangs down from the roof of our mouth, near the throat. At one time, bellworts were thought to cure throat diseases, because such dangling flowers and leaves signified the uvula. This reference to a part of the human body is only one of many in the names of wildflowers.
Like most of the other spring wildflowers, bellworts quickly fade as spring grows into summer. Now, the May woods call us out for a look at this vernal bouquet. Soon the mosquitoes and black flies will make the walk less comfortable, and soon the woods will be shady, so don't postpone that walk too long.

Larry Weber is author of the "Backyard Almanac." He lives in Carlton County and teaches natural science at Duluth's Marshall School.
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