Carol Wolfe Photography

Woodland Spring

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Spring begins under the winter snow.
As the days get warm, the woodland wildflowers wake from their winter dormancy. They must complete their annual cycle of growth, flowering, and seed production before the maple, oak, and other leaves fill in the branches overhead, blocking their energy source (the sun), and casting shade across the forest floor. These photos introduce the story of the Woodland Spring. On this page, I will show and tell about the changes in the season, and I will introduce some of the more common wildflowers in the eastern temperate forest.


About the size of a US quarter, Spring Beauty sprouts in the melting snow (March 10, 1996).

March 9, 2007 Smoky Mountains

April 28, 2007 Smoky Mountains

April 7, 2007 Smoky Mountains

June 13, 2007 Smoky Mountains

They're called spring ephemerals because they are fleeting, making only a brief appearance each spring. Under the late winter snow, woodland wildflowers wake from dormancy. The sun's energy (warmth and light) fuels their growth and reproduction--and beautiful boquets. But they need to work fast.
Once the leaves sprout on the trees, each passing week brings more shade, until finally, there are merely specks of light moving across the forest floor. In the relative darkness, most wildflowers wither and go dormant for nearly a year.


The Wildflower's Point of View
What would a wildflower see if it had eyes and looked toward the sky? This is an important question because sunlight provides the energy for its growth and reproduction, and the amount of sunlight varies with location and time of year. While working on my graduate research in ecology, I needed to estimate the relative amount of sunlight that reached the forest floor. So I borrowed my advisor's fisheye lens, camera body, and tripod equipped with a level. I snapped 360-degree views of the sky every week during the spring at each of the plots where my wildflowers grew.

Early Spring (March 7, 1987)

This shows early spring in eastern Iowa. Around this time, the last remnants of snow have pretty much melted, though that depends on the year and the landscape. By now, the weather is warm enough for the wildflowers to emerge and begin their short season of growth and reproduction. Skunk cabbage is typically the first wildflower to bloom, followed by hepatica and bloodroot (see below).

Mid Spring (April 25, 1987)

By mid April, spring is well underway. Spring beauties are in full bloom, along with phlox, Dutchman's breeches, wild geranium, May apple, and solomon's seal. The earliest flowers are done blooming, and are busy making seeds. Time is running out. The leaves overhead are filling in, producing more and more shade, and blocking the energy of the sun.

Late Spring (May 12, 1987)

By mid May, most of the spring wildflowers are done blooming and many are done making seeds. There is very little light on the forest floor. It feels damp and relatively cool. Also, the mosquitoes have arrived! Most of the spring-blooming wildflowers (also called ephemerals) turn yellowish brown and whither away. Being perennials, however, they will return with the thaw of the following spring.

On this page, I will introduce four of the earliest-blooming wildflowers of the woodland spring. One subsequent pages, I will introduce a additional flowers that bloom throughout the season. These are the woodland flowers of spring, found in forests with a healthy understory anywhere from Maine down to northern Georgia, and all the way out west to Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri. The story begins below, and will continue on subsequent pages. See the TABLE OF CONTENTS for a complete list of the wildflowers on this website. (This is a work in progress, not yet finished.)

Skunk Cabbage Symplocarpus foetidus
Skunk Cabbage is one of the first wildflowers to bloom, often melting its way through the snow. The "ball" inside the hood holds many flowers, which can eventually produce many seeds. I got these pictures during March near Floyd, Va and also along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Mabry Mill.

Skunk Cabbage

Skunk Cabbage

Skunk Cabbage

Skunk Cabbage Very Close

Skunk Cabbage Withering

Skunk Cabbage Closeup

Hepatica Hepatica acutiloba and Hepatica americana
Another of the first wildflowers to bloom each spring, the two species of hepatica can be distinguished by their leaves. H. acutiloba has pointed tips on its leaves, while H. americana has rounded lobes. Hepatica is a member of the butterup family. Its flower is the same shape and size as a common buttercup. Hepatica flowers range from white to pink to pastel purple and sometimes a hint of blue.

Hepatica Bud Emerging

Hepatica in Full Bloom

Leaves Emerging

Hepatica Bud

H. acutiloba Leaf from Prior Season

Hepatica Flowers Close Up

Hepatica Fruits

Flowers and Buds

H. americana Leaf from Current Season

Life on the Forest Floor

Hepatica Leaves from Prior Year

Bloodroot Sanguinaria canadensis
Bloodroot is another of spring's earliest wildflowers, and this one doesn't last long. I love the way the bloodroot first emerges from the ground, like a little spear, with its leaf rolled up tightly to protect the bud underneath. Gradually the leaf loosens its grip and the flower begins to open. Once open, the flower fades quickly. Timing is important with these wildflowers because rain and wind can knock the white petals to the ground. Here are a variety of shots I got of bloodroot during three consecutive springs. For a white flower like bloodroot, I find that soft (diffused) side lighting works well.

A Single Bud

A Young Flower Opens

A Young Flower

Side View of Two

Closeup of Seed Pods

The Bud Gradually Opens

Bloodroot Flowers with Soft Light

Side View of a Group

Closeup of Leaf

Mature Leaf in Late Spring

The Flower Blooms

A Flower in Its Prime

Side View Early Flower

Side View Mature Flower

Fading Flower

Young Seed Pod on Mature Leaf

Cut-leaved and Broad-Leaved Toothwort Dentaria species
Toothwort is a member of the mustard family, which helps explain the appearance of its flowers, leaves, and seed pods. The flowers always have four petals, typically white or soft pink. I have photographed two species, the cut-leaved version called D. laciniata and the broad-leaved version called D. diphylla. I have seen the cut-leaved species in all kinds of places including eastern Iowa, eastern PA, southern Virginia, and the Smoky Mountains. I have seen the broad-leaf species primarily in the UP of Michigan. Sometimes when walking through the woods, I see individuals who appear somwhere in between the cut-leaved and broad-leaved form.

Cut-Leaved Toothwort Leaves

Toothwort Plant with Buds

Toothwort "Scenic" Portrait

Broadleaf-Toothwort Leaves

Toothwort Buds Softly Lit

Toothwort Flowers Closeup

Flower Buds (Cut-Leaf/Broad-Leaf?)

Flowers Often Appear "Droopy"

Toothwort's Typical "Mustard" Seedpod

Here is a link to Woodland Spring 2, the next page in this sequence.
Here is a link to Trilliums and Solomon Seals.

Large White Trillium

This is called Trillium grandiflorum, or large flowered trillium. This plant can reach a height of 8-12 inches. The flowers always have three petals. The stem has a whorl of three leaves. I got this shot in mid April in southern Virginia, using my Nikon D70 and 200 mm micro lens.

Cinnamon Fern

During mid May, I found this fiddlehead of Cinnamon Fern, still wrapped rather tightly. I used my Nikon D70 and 200 mm micro lens to focus closely on this fiddlehead. I opened the aperture a bit to make sure that the background was thrown out of focus.

Showy Orchid

I found this showy orchid near the Greenbriar area in the Smokies. It was the first week of April 2007, and the temperatures fell with the snow. As a result the freeze, few wildflowers bloomed in the Smokies that spring. I used my Nikon D200 and 200 mm micro lens.

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