THE WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
Crusty remnants of snow in shaded woodlands have melted; mourning cloak butterflies flit about between leafless trees and the songs of wood frogs and spring peepers enliven vernal ponds. But the true signal that spring has taken root on the wilder side of Oakland County is the emergence of the Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) a beautiful and tasty spring ephemeral wildflower. Ephemeral wildflowers are perennial wildflowers that bloom in early spring and die back quickly before trees unfurl their leaves. Their season in the sunlight of spring is now!
Mark Carlson is a naturalist/photographer with a passion for ephemeral wildflowers as photographic subjects, and in the case of the Spring Beauty, as a tasty vegetable as well. Carlson shared images of wildflowers as Oakland County ephemerals still struggle to emerge and then added some intriguing words, “Spring beauties are delicious and every part is edible. I particularly enjoy eating their corms (root-like structure) raw or cooked and they taste similar to a potato.”
I have hiked with Carlson on his wildflower photography workshops and his eye sees what others miss and his lens has perfected the art of capture. As he and I raced to fit photos to words in time to greet this seasons Spring Beauties we chatted about how they emerge first in the southern Appalachians and then weeks or even a month later in the Northwoods of Michigan. And I thought back to an Ohio friend that showed me Spring Beauties several weeks ago in a moist wooded ravine in Hocking Hills State Park and shared her similar secret, “They are tasty trailside treats.” A bit of research confirmed what Mark in Michigan and Tracy in Ohio already knew —-and on occasion practice. Claytonia virginica and its kin the Claytonia caroliniana, the Broad-leafed Spring Beauty are edible and has been a favorite of Native Americans and modern day foragers in search of healthful and tasty edible wilds that can be consumed raw or cooked. (In Oakland County the narrow-leafed spring beauty is common in fertile woodlands, but once the straits are crossed into the Upper Peninsula keen-eyed hikers may find the equally stunning broad-leafed spring beauty.) The often used nickname “fairy spuds” evolved from the visual similarity between the tiny underground corms and potatoes. And it is not just humans that eat this flower. Mice will dig and eat the underground corms and white-tailed deer consume the entire plant.
Sunlight, soil nutrients and soil moisture are the three components that must come together to give new life to spring ephemerals. The Spring Beauties may be found in small clumps near nutrient rich decaying logs or they may carpet a large swath of forest floor creating incredibly vivid yet highly delicate ephemeral beauty. But without a doubt once Fairy Spuds have emerged, the season we call spring has graced the wilder side of the woodlands of Oakland County and landscapes far beyond.
Text, and first and last photo by Jonathan Schechter, Oakland County Parks – Nature Education Writer, www.DestinationOakland.com. Remaining three images courtesy of Mark S Carlson, Naturalist Photographer.