Spring is my favourite season to do fieldwork. It’s a combination of the smell of the earth thawing, the canopy slowly closing in above you as trees begin to leaf out, April showers igniting plants and animals alike, and vibrant colours and new sounds awaking all of your senses. Of course, spring fieldwork has its drawbacks. As the natural world slowly wakes up, mosquitoes and black flies wake up, often too fast and much too enthusiastically, and while I do enjoy the rain, it’s still pretty cold, and this can make for some chilly, damp days in the field. My biggest complaint however, is that this season – especially for spring wildflowers – is painfully short. The bare forest grounds explode with life and colour, but blink one too many times and it’s gone.
The start of the season is marked by tiny yellow flowers cluttering roadsides and wet ditches. Most people mistake them for dandelions, but they’re actually a really neat spring wildflower called coltsfoot. Coltsfoot often reaches reproductive maturity before most species even begin to grow for the season, and often when there is still snow on the ground- pretty smart strategy in my opinon. It is also referred to as the “son-before-father” because it also often flowers before it even produces leaves. So naturally, we jumped on the chance to collect coltsfoot for a project I was working on about body size and reproduction in plants. It was literally the only thing there was to collect at the time.
Quickly after we see coltsfoot, more species spring to life as the ground thaws, and the days get warmer and sunnier. Spring beauties cover the rich, soft woodland ground. It breaks my heart to crush them beneath my feet as I walk through the woods, but they are everywhere. They might be one of the most beautiful little spring wildflowers, with stripes of vibrant pink lacing their pale pink petals. And the sheer number of them makes for some spectacular woodland walks.
And of course, there are the iconic trilliums. At one of my field sites, white trillium populations can be found all throughout the surrounding woodland areas. But on one rocky cliff edge, there is a giant population of red trilliums. Red trilliums aren’t that rare a sight while doing fieldwork – you often see them interspersed with white trilliums here and there. But what made this particular spot special is that it was covered with red trilliums and red trilliums only. That was a rare and beautiful site.
I learned lots of new species doing spring fieldwork, and discovered some absolutely stunning plants. Take a look at the photo below, the ever brilliant early meadowrue. I had never seen it in flower until my first spring doing fieldwork. The first time I saw this species, it really did make my heart beat a little harder. I don’t think there is a more beautiful wildflower out there. It is so delicate – I couldn’t bring myself to cut it down for my project. Looking back at that photo, and remembering that moment in the field, I’m glad I left it where it was.
There’s something special about spring fieldwork and for me, the wildflowers are a large part of that something special. They’re different from other wildflowers: short-lived, of course, but what they lack in life span they make up for in beauty. They’re one of the first signs of life in the spring and for many field biologists, a sign that our favourite season, fieldwork season, is finally here.