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Springtime forest plants, a masterstroke of adaptation!

Wild leek emerging in the early days of April
Credit: Biodôme de Montréal (A. Nault)
Wild leek emerging in the early days of April
  • Wild leek emerging in the early days of April
  • Coltsfoot blooms early alongside roads
  • The first flower in the garden: the crocus
  • The sharp-lobed liverleaf – a springtime ephemeral typical of the Laurentian maple forest
  • Small colony of wild leek easily visible in mid-April
  • The yellow trout lily is widespread in Québec’s maple stands
  • The delicate Carolina springbeauty with its wonderful pink and white blooms
  • The white trillium, a species indicative of a rich forest floor
Springtime forest plants, a masterstroke of adaptation!

This year, cool weather is delaying the spring outburst as it’s often pictured: the crows waking us up, the colorful planted beds, the woodland scene covered in flowers… And yet, it’s all there. It just takes a little patience: nature’s thought of everything!

There’s no mistaking the signs

The “signs of spring” vary according to where you are: the arrival of the first American robins surveying our flowerbeds, the willow branches covered with catkins in damper environments, the ditches bounded by coltsfoot (careful, those aren’t dandelions!). For me it’s the maple forest where magic really goes to work. A number of species poke discreetly through the carpet of dead leaves. Do you know what they are? Among the earlier ones: wild leek, sharp-lobed liverleaf, Carolina springbeauty, trillium and, of course, the yellow trout lily.

Spring: a season of abundance!

In the forest, it’s the snowmelt that starts the changes. That abundance of water and newly available minerals supports the rapid growth of spring plants, stimulated by the full light in our maple stands. Beginning in mid-May, tree buds burst open and their leaves unfurl to gradually “close off” the forest cover. As that happens, the light hitting the ground drops from 70 percent in April to only five percent in June. Those four to five weeks of full sun become vital for understory plants.

Adapting to be on the starting line

To take full advantage of this brief period of abundance, plants need to be well prepared. Certain species rely on their storage organs (e.g., bulbs and corms) in order to deploy quickly. Well shielded in those bulbs, the leaves and flowers preformed over the preceding year are at rest. However, in order for them to develop, nature must serve up a clever alternating pattern of cold (winter) and warmth (spring). That adaptation keeps plants from wanting to emerge during mild spells in the fall… Thus, after a long winter, the plant responds rapidly to the arrival of the sun’s first warm rays.

Ephemeral…and perennial!

The cool wet weather of spring doesn’t last. The first warm dry days that occur in late May cause leaves and flowers to wilt. But those plants remain very much alive, hidden under the surface. The ten subsequent months comprise a long phase of slowed-down underground development, punctuated by dormant periods. Thanks to a stockpiling of reserves, the plant is slowly preparing to reappear…next spring!

Wild leek fans: get ready to sow!

One of the undeniable starring plants of spring is the wild leek. A lot of you have been in touch with me about how to find wild leek seeds to sow in your woodlot. This year I invite you to stock up in your area. Take advantage of the short season when the plant is visible to identify one or two colonies. Wild leek is easy to recognize, and in case of doubt, taste the tip of a leaf – it’s delicious, and doesn’t kill the plant. But take careful note of the colony’s location, because in September, when the time comes to harvest your seeds, the leaves will have disappeared! Make yourself a little sketch or note the GPS coordinates. Above all, avoid the orange ribbon that attracts pickers’ attention. Make sure you have the agreement of the owner. The law authorizes you to pick 200 grams of seeds, about half a cup. This fall you’ll be able to harvest your seeds and launch your colony. Everyone who sows a new colony in his or her community is taking a concrete step for the conservation of wild leek in Québec.

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