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Here today, gone tomorrow Spring: Plants put ants to work.

Byline: Valerie Blaine Forest Preserve District of Kane County

A host of spectacular wildflowers catches our attention in the reveille of spring.

In the blink of an eye, it seems, they come and go. These native spring wildflowers don't give us much time to admire them. They're nicknamed the spring ephemera, for good reason.

Why such a small window of opportunity?

The answer lies in their sun-loving lifestyle and interrelationship with insects.

The first ephemera emerge when the last of the wet snow has melted, and the trees are still without leaves. Plenty of sun is available to warm the shoots poking up through soil.

This is just about the time we notice the first insects of the year, flying around in the woods. No mosquitoes yet, but small flies, a variety of bees, and the earliest of the butterflies.

The immediate task of the spring ephemera is to make flowers. They all go about this in very different ways.

Dutchman's breeches and Jack-in-the-pulpit are good examples of how crazy flower design can be. Dutchman's breeches have odd little flowers all lined up in a row, hanging from a stem arching over the leaves. They look remarkably like the old-fashioned pantaloons worn by the Dutch in centuries past. Hence, the nickname for the plant.

Jack-in-the-pulpit has taken a completely different tact. The flowers don't even look like flowers.

Rather, they're grouped together in a club-shaped column, seeming to stick up from a vase with a partial lid on it.

To someone long ago, this looked like a preacher (named Jack -- why not?) preaching from a pulpit.

The reason for flowers is not to be pretty or unusual, or to catch our eye. They exist solely to get a job done, and that job is to produce viable seeds.

Before that can happen, though, pollination has to occur. Spring ephemeral flowers come in shapes and colors designed to attract all kinds of pollinating partners.

Those pretty pink lines running along the petals of spring beauty? They're landing strips for the insects, leading them right to the nectar -- with a pollen bath in the process.

The bizarre Dutchman's breeches are shaped to attract bumblebees.

Amazingly, a big, fat bumblebee can hang on the bottom of those tiny pantaloons. It stays there for a brief few seconds -- just long enough to extend its long tongue in to get the nectar.

Wild ginger flowers are dark maroon and hidden under broad leaves. The carrion-like color attracts flies and beetles as pollinators.

In ecology, timing is everything. This is especially true with the spring ephemera.

After all, it's no use having your petals open if there aren't any insects around for pollination.

And it would be no use for insects to emerge if there were no nectar to drink. Thus, the two-spotted bumblebee emerges just when the Dutchman's breeches bloom.

Hoverflies come out just when the bloodroot blossoms open. The spring beauty mining bee is active when the spring beauty is in bloom.

When the regalia of blossoms wanes and pollinators have done their thing, the next step in the critical work of reproduction begins.

Some of the spring ephemera reproduce clonally by underground structures (rhizomes or stolons). Some reproduce by seeds. Some do both.

Mayapple and trout lily are good examples of the latter. If you look closely at a colony of these wildflowers, you'll see both single-leaved and double-leaved plants.

You may see more leaves than flowers, and a large patch of leaves may all be the same individual plant. Check out

single leaves, and the double leaves. Only the double-leaved portions produce flowers and seeds.

Producing seeds is well and fine, but then there's the challenge of dispersing those seeds. Why not team up with insects again?

Several species of spring wildflowers solicit the help of ants. Yes, these most unwanted insects in our homes are vital in the ecology of the woods, and seed dispersal is just one of their helpful roles.

In an impossible-to-pronounce relationship called myrmecochory, ants and plants have a good thing going.

Some plants produce a protein-packed treat called an elaiosome and attach it to each seed. Elaiosomes are like power bars for ants, who gather them and take them to their underground nests.

The ants eat the treat and discard the seed. The seed ends up in a wonderful soil medium, perfect for germination.

Lots of our spring ephemerals rely on ants to disperse their seeds, including violets, trout lily, blood root, Trillium, wild ginger, and Dutchman's breeches.

The light reaching the forest floor diminishes as the season progresses. The trees have a full complement of leaves by the end of May, and the sun-loving spring wildflowers recede.

Enjoy the last of the spring flora with a walk in a forest preserve this week. Each season offers something to amaze and delight us, but there's nothing quite like the fleeting pageantry of spring.

*Valerie Blaine is the nature programs manager for the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. You may reach her at
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Title Annotation:Neighbor
Publication:Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
Date:May 21, 2018
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