If you’ve spent much time in Michigan, you are likely familiar with the excitement that comes with spring—wildflowers blooming, birds migrating, trees budding. It is a time of renewal and rebirth as the drab browns of winter slowly return to green, the additional sunlight and longer days allowing the process of photosynthesis to recur.
Perhaps the most exciting of all are the ephemerals—the short-lived plants—like spring beauty, trillium, hepatica, and more that provide important food sources for pollinators. These temporary wonders are among the first to appear on the forest floor, anytime between March and June depending on the latitude and elevation. As insects emerge from under leaves where they’ve spent the winter they must go in search of food sources like nectar from these spring ephemeral wildflowers. Widespread and abundant ones like trillium are an easy source for many insects (and birds in search of an insect meal), but there are also some insects that are more particular about the plants they seek nectar from.
It is well-known that monarch butterflies need milkweed for the caterpillar stage of life. Milkweed is actually a toxic plant containing glycosides that would normally make them inedible to people and wildlife, but monarchs have developed a tolerance for this toxin that offers them protective benefits. Birds that eat monarch caterpillars will become sick due to the stored glycosides, and so they learn that the color pattern associated with the monarchs are not a source of food, and will move on.
Another ephemeral plant that blooms later in the summer—the Black-eyed Susan—has a less well-known benefit to Michigan’s federally endangered Poweshiek skipperling butterfly. Adult Poweshiek skipperlings feed exclusively on the nectar of Black-eyed Susan flowers, making these common wildflowers an essential part of the recovery effort for this butterfly.
So, as signs of spring make their way across Michigan and you delight in the sight of wildflowers blooming, it is a good reminder that these brief encounters are just one of the many important parts of a healthy ecosystem.
Several MNA nature sanctuaries are well-known for their wildflower displays. Dowagiac Woods Nature Sanctuary in Cass County is home to a wide variety of wildflowers including trillium, trout lily, dutchman’s breeches, and many more. Trillium Ravine Plant Preserve in Berrien County holds several different types of trillium that carpet the forest floor for an incredible display for trillium seekers. Visit michigannature.org to plan your next visit today!