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COLUMN: Woodland natives of early spring

Bruce H. Mero, Cornell Cooperative Extension Oneida County, Master Gardener alumni
Posted 3/13/23

As far away as it seems, as winter’s cold continues to linger, spring will eventually arrive. Early robins will usher the change and flocks of Canada geese noisily moving northward.

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COLUMN: Woodland natives of early spring


As far away as it seems, as winter’s cold continues to linger, spring will eventually arrive. Early robins will usher the change and flocks of Canada geese noisily moving northward.

In our native woodland garden, it is a rift of bloodroot plants that signal the arrival of warmer days. At nearly the moment the snow recedes, swellings under last fall’s leaf litter are detectable. Soon the duff is parted by green rolled-up, cigar-shaped leaves, each tube harboring a single stalk, from which will unfurl a brilliant white, multi-petal flower. Hundreds bloom within a few days, scattered upon the forest floor like late snowflakes wherever winter’s snow has melted.

The Algonquin considered the plant a love charm, though I find no explanation for how that worked. Bloodroots are a true harbinger of spring. It is also a protected species in New York.

Not to be outdone, arriving at nearly the same time are hepaticas and spring beauties adding their pale-colored blossoms inches above last autumn’s leaves. The pastel blue clumps of hepatica blossoms sit upon its tattered evergreen leaves from the prior season, dozens of blooms on short stems in each cluster. Fresh new leaves will grow once the flowers are spent. The pink stripes upon the lavender petals of the spring beauty define this early bloomer.

They seem to be everywhere beneath the arching branches of the beech trees above. Another name for this delicate early bird is “fairy potato” since the bulb from which spring beauty flower stems emerge are edible. I’ve never eaten them since it seems a shame to dig the bulbs for a single snack and destroy their potential beauty for years.

One edible in the woodland garden is abundant and highly sought after by foraging fans, the wild leek or ramp. There will be no telltale blooms to identify this onion family member in the early spring; flowers come much later.

Instead, the smooth, elliptical-shaped leaves, often present in great numbers, give them away. We eat ramps sparingly as they are strong. Rather than dig them from their wild colonies, a few years ago, we collected seeds later in the summer and established a plot of not-so-wild leeks in our vegetable garden. We pick from these when we have a hankering for leek and potato soup, leaving the wild ones alone. These leeks grow larger in our cultivated vegetable garden, and even these are bigger after a few years of growth.

The nodding yellow blossoms of Trout Lily are scattered among the mossy rocks in a hedgerow where the snow has parted. Dozens of them sprout from their smooth, spotted leaves. They share space with the emerging and edible fiddleheads of Cinnamon Ferns. These delectables are highly sought-after by the same foraging folks seeking Wild Leeks. They are, however, protected in New York, as are most Ferns, meaning that the landowner’s permission must be sought before collecting them. In some of the spaces between the rocks, we find the hairy, modeled leaves of Foam Flower. It is too early in the season for the fluffy spikes of tiny white flowers to be seen, though only a few warmer, sunny days will bring them out.

Our woodland garden is bordered on one side by a wet meadow we pass as we leave the garden to return to the farm. Already emerging from the wet soil are the saucer-sized, shiny leaves of a huge colony of Marsh Marigolds. Only a few yellow blossoms are showing, but the multitudes of buds will soon open, and the marsh will be a rush of color in just a few more days. My research into this species relates that some Native Americans used Marsh Marigold as a defense against love charms. I have no idea of what a love charm is actually, as I mentioned earlier when discussing Bloodroot’s love charm reputation, or how it is possible that Marsh Marigold counteracts one! I’ll leave my reader to ponder those thoughts.

Cornell Cooperative Extension Oneida County answers home and garden questions which can be emailed to or call 315-736-3394, press 1 and ext. 333. Leave your question, name and phone number. Questions are answered weekdays, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Also, visit our website at or phone 315-736-3394, press 1 and then ext.100.


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