Friday, February 20, 2009

Harbinger of spring could bloom this month

By Dr. Lynda Richards
Rolla

Here's a wildflower with real flowers for February—one that you can go out and find if you really want to: harbinger of spring, or pepper-and-salt, Erigenia bulbosa. This member of the carrot family lives up to its common names and its scientific name. A “harbinger” is a prophecy or sign of things to come, and this tiny flower heralds spring. The flowers have white petals and dark stamens, so they look a little like “salt and pepper” among the dry leaves on the forest floor. And these flowers arise from a tiny bulb, thus the specific name “bulbosa.”
Pepper-and-salt flowers may be blooming now! If not, they will be blooming very soon in the Ozarks, surely before February is out. If you find this little gem, you may consider yourself one of the few—not because it’s a rare plant, but because you have to be there at the right place, at the right time. You will know that I am a very lazy botanist when I admit that I myself have been there at the right time and place only a couple times in my 25 years in the Ozarks.
The place is near the bottom of a steep, north-facing wooded hill along one of our major rivers like Big Piney, Gasconade , Meramec, Current, or Eleven Point. The time, of course, is February (though they may last into March). Normally at this time of year, I will be in an easy chair beside the woodstove, watching birds at a feeder in my front yard. Last spring, I got a phone call from a real outdoorsman, retired cattleman Lester Buch, who lives down J Highway near King Sink. “Do you want to see harbinger of spring?” he asked. “I found it in bloom along the Big Piney, out that road that goes on down to Devil’s Elbow.” Did I want to drive 15 miles out into the boondocks and then scramble down a steep treacherous rocky trail (and back up!) that chill afternoon, just to see tiny gray flowers on a three-inch-tall stem? Yes!
If you don’t want to do that, just open the book Missouri Wildflowers, fifth edition, 1998, by Edgar Denison. ( Denison , author of the four earlier editions, died in 1993. Out of respect for him, Denison ’s name remains on the fifth edition cover, despite extensive revision by our Missouri state botanist, Tim Smith, and other MDC workers.) Harbinger of spring is on page 2, the very first wildflower in the book. The flowering stalk shoots up to two or three inches, well before the leaves. Later, the stem will continue to grow and produce ferny-looking leaves, eventually reaching the exalted height of eight inches. Within a few weeks the above-ground parts will shrivel and become part of the leaf litter, the bulb secure underground for next year’s brief foray into the realm of the birds and the bees. An Ozarks native, this plant is also found throughout the eastern USA in suitable rich, moist wooded habitats.

Dr. Lynda Richards, of Rolla, is the retired Mark Twain National Forest ecologist and a Phelps County Master Gardener.

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