An article from the Door County Almanak, No. 1, 1982-83
“What do you folks do up there in the wintertime?” Most of us who are lucky enough to live in Door County year-round have formulated a glib answer for the query by now. But in our privately candid moments many of us will admit that, deep down, a carefully repressed part of ourselves is just waiting for spring.
Since the seasons change so gradually on a peninsula, how can one know the exact moment of spring’s arrival? For me, the co-owner and caretaker of a patch of mostly maple and birch woods in the center of Door County, the first hint of resurgent life often comes during an April rain shower – the invigorating fragrance of fertile soil. There may be patches of snow still lurking in hollows, but I know now that winter is over and the cycle is about to begin again.
Each succeeding day will be a bit warmer (I try to ignore occasional setbacks), grass will begin to turn green and leaf buds to swell. Birds are announcing their territories and serenading their mates. But something is still missing. The suspense continues to build day by day until just the right combination of air and soil temperatures is reached, and then suddenly and all at once our woods are filled with patches of bright pink, white, and blue flowers of Round-lobed Hepatica. Rising from under a carpet of decomposing leaves, they transform the forest floor into a gaily random pattern that seems the visual counterpart of the Hallelujah Chorus, and I know that spring has arrived.
Beautiful as Hepatica is in a mosaic, it must also be seen up close for true appreciation since the flowers are less than one inch in diameter and only 4-5 inches high. The urge to walk around and visit each and every cluster is strong. But I am careful to watch my step, because now each bit of woods is preparing its own contribution to the garden. Within hours of the Hepatica’s blooming, the somewhat similar Bloodroot will open, with a single leaf tightly clasped around each flower stem. Its juice is orange-red, but pure white petals surround a strong yellow center. The petals are of uneven lengths, often giving the flower a square shape.
After this tremendous outburst, our woods seem to pause for a week or two to allow us to savor the moment. Then begins the fantastic floral processions of May, when nearly every day brings a new variety to view. Trout lilies amaze us with strong colors and structure but cannot stand to be picked. The next day we are surrounded by our most plentiful wildflower – yellow violets completely covering the ground. Fortunately, they don’t seem to mind being walked on. Later I will search out their rarer cousins – Great-spurred, Long-spurred, Wooly Blue, and Canada violets for tiny bouquets.
We are treated next to the opening of our largest wildflower, the large-flowered Trillium. These snowy white beauties have petals up to 2 ½ inches long and often bloom dramatically at the base of large trees trunks. They last for three weeks, finally fading to a lovely rose color in graceful old age.
From this point on, the wildflowers that grow in our particular patch of woods are most often shy and hidden. Of course that challenge makes them doubly precious. Finding a Wood Anemone or Spring Beauty calls for marking the spot to make it easier next year, a trick that seldom works. The delicate pink stripes of the Spring Beauty and its habit of hiding in the shade of a large tree trunk make photography difficult but rewarding.
In my intense study of every foot of earth I discover the tiny blooms of the grass and then of Toothwort and Cut-leaved Toothwort. I’m so glad I didn’t miss their miniature perfection.
Dutchman’s Breeches have yet to be spotted on our property, but we do have their first cousins, Squirrel Corn. The trick is to locate the cool blue-green leaves first, and then watch for the blooms, which are short-lived.
By this time most of the trees are in bloom, forming a lacy canopy too high to be studied and easily ignored in favor of the tiny wild strawberry blossoms underfoot. MUST remember that spot… With only the White Baneberry of Doll’s Eye, Solomon’s Seal, and Sweet Cicely left for springtime bloom inside our woods, my eyes are drawn to the cherry orchard next door, a rich display of snow-white blossoms against a deep blue sky and floored with a mass of golden dandelions on bright green grass. (Thank you for not disking until next week!) This scene comes with gloriously intoxicating fragrance and the loud hum of many thousands of bees too busy to notice me.
In just a few days the apple orchard across the road (also visible from our house) will turn pink and white and have its own fluffy white carpet of dandelions gone to seed. Perhaps my most unforgettable orchard scene is of very young trees only three tall, already bearing ripe red cherries, with blue-flowering chicory growing up into those low branches. Now there’s a picture good enough to eat!
But now I’ve slipped out of spring and into summer when the wildflowers are mostly found in fields. When the trees have leafed out, our woods become too dark for most flowers to thrive. Yet I can enjoy its cool depths all summer and remember clearly the natural garden beauty it produced in spring without any help from me at all.