Michigan Nature Monday – Spring Ephemerals

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.

False rue anemone and spring beauty in bloom at MNA’s Dowagiac Woods Nature Sanctuary. Photo by Lauren Ross.

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.

Poweshiek skipperling butterfly on a black-eyed Susan. Photo by Kelly Nail, USFWS.

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!

Showcase Sanctuary: Dowagiac Woods


Hunter’s Creek. Photo: Dan Sparks-Jackson

By Michelle Ferrell, MNA Intern

Since its establishment as a Michigan Nature Association sanctuary in 1983, Dowagiac Woods has become renowned for its dazzling, weeks-long display of spring wildflowers.  In fact, this in part is what inspired the Michigan Nature Association’s interest; shortly after a member visited the woods in 1975 and noted the abundance of Blue-eyed Mary on a 220-acre forest lot that was for sale, an appeal was made for funding to purchase it. The original purchase has since been expanded to encompass an additional 164 acres.


Trails of Wildflowers. Photo: Judy Kepler

Every year visitors walk the trails meandering through the diverse blooms, some of which are hard to find elsewhere in the state. However, Dowagiac Woods is a unique example of the value of Michigan’s natural heritage, not just for its famed spring wildflowers, but because it’s a largely undisturbed 384-acre block of high-quality forest habitat with ample biodiversity to support a variety of Michigan-native wildlife, including many rare and some endangered species. Nearly 50 kinds of trees and hundreds of various other plant species, as well as close to 50 kinds of birds, have been catalogued by MNA. These include the Yellow-throated warbler whose clear songs grace visitors with joyful notes, the notorious Pileated woodpecker, and the rare and lovely Cerulean warbler.

Large, intact forest blocks like Dowagiac Woods are vital to the composition of habitats that support an array of wildlife, yet are becoming increasingly rare in southern Michigan as landscapes are fragmented by industry and human use. Additionally, the majority of Michigan’s intact forests reside in the upper half of the state. Thus, as the largest MNA sanctuary in the southern Lower Peninsula and a rare, high-quality example of the natural state of Michigan’s mesic southern and southern floodplain forests, Dowagiac Woods is truly a state treasure.


Dowagiac Woods the largest MNA sanctuary in the southern Lower Peninsula. Photo: Patricia Pennell

The ecological importance of biologically diverse plant communities can’t be overstated. Plants form the basis of habitats and aid in performing various hydrological functions not limited to natural flood control, water purification, and the cycling of water. They anchor and enrich the soil, cycle important nutrients, and convert carbon dioxide into breathable oxygen. Forests also act as important carbon sinks by storing large amounts of carbon dioxide. The more diverse the community of plants that make up a community, the more efficiently it can function as a whole and perform these essential services. When biodiversity drops, ecosystems become less resilient against disturbances like disease or fire, because a single species comprises a much greater proportion of the plant community and its decline takes a greater toll.

With the exception of a section of woods that was selectively cut in the 1960s, the majority of Dowagiac Woods has thankfully remained undisturbed. The Michigan Nature Association’s mission is to preserve and maintain pristine areas like Dowagiac Woods. With soil that has never been plowed and trees that have never been clear-cut, it is the closest illustration of how Michigan’s forests may have looked prior to settlement. Visitors are encouraged to walk the trails and take in the rare sights and sounds of the many unique species found there. With careful management, what remains of Michigan’s natural heritage may yet be enjoyed for generations to come.

Michigan’s Spring Wildflowers

By Alyssa Kobylarek, MNA intern

After a long, cold winter in Michigan, nothing is more refreshing and exciting than seeing the first buds of flowers peeking from the newly thawed ground. The spring and summer months are full of intense beauty and color when all of the wildflowers are in bloom, showing off their amazing color displays. Michigan offers a wide variety of spring wildflowers, many of which are located only in specific regions. MNA sanctuaries protect many of these rare and beautiful flowers, preserving their beauty for visitors to enjoy for generations to come.

Red trillium. Photo by Al Menk.

Red trillium. Photo by Al Menk.


The trillium has been used to symbolize purity, simplicity, elegance and beauty for years. Every spring, the woods of Michigan are filled with the beauty that the trillium has to offer. Trillium typically thrives in moist, woodland settings where rich, acidic soil is present. At first glance trillium appear to have unbranched stems, but they actually produce no true leaves or stems above ground. Instead, the stem is an extension of the horizontal rhizome (a stem that grows underground continuously and sends out shoots and roots above the ground) and produces small bracts that look like leaves. These flowers have three large petals that can be found in a variety of colors. Their seeds are distributed by ants that feed on the oil-rich structure, called elaiosome, that is found on the seeds.

Four trillium species are protected in Michigan. The state lists toadshade, prairie trillium and snow trillium as threatened and painted trillium as endangered. MNA sanctuaries protect several trillium species, such as drooping trillium, red trillium, painted trillium, prairie trillium and toadshade. The biggest sources of threat are animal grazing and urban development. Deer are known to feed on the flower which leads to diminishing populations. Several MNA sanctuaries are home to this striking flower.

Dwarf lake iris

Dwarf lake iris. Photo courtesy of MNA archives.

Dwarf lake iris. Photo courtesy of MNA archives.

This beautiful flower grows nowhere else in the world but in the Great Lakes Region, making it a rare sight to see and a favorite among visitors. This unique flower is also Michigan’s state wildflower. Most of the population lies within Michigan and is heavily concentrated along the northern Great Lakes shoreline, but they are also found in Wisconsin and Ontario. They grow on sand or thin soil over limestone rich gravel or bedrock. The dwarf lake iris tolerates the full sun to near complete shade, but flowers mostly in semi open habitat. These plants bloom from Mid-May to early June and are threatened in the state of Michigan.

The dwarf lake iris can be distinguished by its tiny size and thin, yellow rhizomes or underground stems. The slender rhizomes produce fans of flattened leaves that can reach a height of six inches. The light green leaves are no more than half an inch wide. The flowers of the dwarf lake iris are a deep, dark blue that are produced singly on short stems. These flowers grow in dense bunches that form a brilliant blue carpet.

Ram’s head orchid

Ram's head orchid. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons

Ram’s head orchid. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons

The ram’s head orchid, or ram’s head lady’s slipper, is a species of special concern in the state of Michigan. They can be found through northern lower Michigan and across the Upper Peninsula. These plants can be characterized by three to five bluish-green elliptic leaves that sprout along the stem of the flower in a spiral arrangement. They produce a small, terminal flower that has a pouched lower lip. The petals of the flower are similar to the leaves in shape, but are wavy. The flower has purple or brown sepals, which are often streaked with green. The pouch of the lip is white and marked with purple, crimson or green net-like veins and the mouth of the pouch is hairy. These flowers only grow to be about 30 centimeters tall. The ram’s head orchid is appreciated for its delicate beauty and pleasant fragrance. It is also one of the most distinctive of the lady’s slipper orchids.

The ram’s head orchid grows in confined cool, moist wetlands and coniferous forests. They also have a preference for moist, mossy bogs. They are very long-lived and can take 10 to 16 years to reach maturity. Flowering occurs from mid-May to mid-June when the flowers are pollinated by bees, insects and birds that aid in transporting the seeds to various locations.

Virginia bluebells

Virginia bluebells. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons

Virginia bluebells. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons

Virginia bluebells are ephemeral wildflowers; the blooming period occurs from mid-to late spring and lasts about three weeks. The central stem, which can reach a height up to three feet, is hairless and usually light green in color. The leaves can reach seven inches in length and are light green with a soft, floppy texture. The Virginia bluebell flowers are arranged in clusters and the tubular baby blue flowers flare at the mouth, displaying their bright yellow stamen. The flower clusters hang from arching stalks at the tips of the branches. The flower is tubular at the base and forms a bell shape towards the outer rim. They bloom from pink bulbs and when the flowers are ready for pollination, the plant increases its alkalinity to change the pink pigmentation to blue, which is a much more attractive color to various pollinators, such as butterflies and bees.This striking spring flower is a very popular species to be seen at MNA sanctuaries.

In Michigan, bluebells grow in southern floodplain forests and rich ravines. Just over ten state localities for them have been documented in Michigan. The vast majority occur in Kent and Ottawa counties.

Evening primrose

Evening primrose. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons

Evening primrose. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons

The evening primrose is a vivid flower when it blooms in late spring. This species is a perennial with quite a short bloom period. Its flowers can be seen in May and June.

These plants produce stunning bright yellow blossoms that stand out among others. Evening primrose flowers open in clusters at the top of the plant. each flower has four petals and a slightly glossy look. The flowers themselves only last for a day when they first open in the evening. After they dazzle viewers with their brilliant yellow petals, they turn a salmon color before they die and fall off the plant. The flowers of the evening primrose have a large X- shaped pistil which projects beyond the stamens. The leaves of this plant are narrow and lance-shaped. They can reach up to six inches in length and have a silvery sheen on the surface of their petals due to short hairs that cover them. This wildflower grows close to the ground and sprawls out in areas of full sun.

Visitors will have the opportunity to see some of these spectacular species of wildflowers throughout the spring at MNA sanctuaries, so be on the lookout for some of these brilliant flowers! You can enjoy a whole weekend of wildflowers on our Wildflower Weekend Getaway, or take a guided hike during the Wildflower Walkabout series.