2014-06-14 / Columnists

Nature Notes

Late Flowers Bloom as Spring Warms Up Mackinac Island
By Patricia Martin

It’s amazing how quickly the spring ephemeral flowers have popped up, once the cold finally left us, and they all seem to be blooming at once. Wednesday, June 4, by Fort Holmes and Point Lookout, not only did I see the beautiful large-flowered trillium, but I also saw a few trout lilies, twin-leaved toothwort, lots of downy yellow violets, garden forget me-nots (blue, white, and pink flowers), starflowers, clintonia, or bluebead lily, and even a few yellow lady’s slippers. It’s unusual to see trout lilies and yellow lady’s slippers blooming at the same time. I always think of the lady’s slipper as one of the last of the spring bloomers.

In the last week, the yellow lady’s slippers (Cypripedium parviflorum, formerly calceolus) have bloomed profusely. Large and small clumps of these sunny orchids are filling the woods and edges of roadways. As orchids, they are a protected Michigan wildflower. The showiest part of the flower is a yellow, inflated, slipper-like pouch made by two fused sepals, which occur usually one per stem, but occasionally two flowers may be produced. Often the flower is more than one inch long with three elongated, narrow, twisted petals and one sepal, mottled with brown and purple arising from the stem. The stem is leafy, with three to six broad parallelveined leaves that somewhat sheaths the stem. The flowers are pollinated by insects that enter the pouch and then, while climbing out, pick up the pollen. They are found in a great diversity of habitats, from damp woods (coniferous, mixed and deciduous), bogs, meadows, borders of woods and clearings, often under cedar trees. This is the most common species of the slippered orchids (Cypripedium) in the United States, and they are found in every state. Worldwide, there are more than 50 species of slippered orchids, 12 of which are in the U.S. The name Cypripedium comes from the Greek “cypris,” referring to Aphrodite, and “pedilon,” referring to sandal, so it was sort of named Aphrodite’s sandal.


In the last week, the yellow lady’s slippers (Cypripedium parviflorum, formerly calceolus) have bloomed profusely. In the last week, the yellow lady’s slippers (Cypripedium parviflorum, formerly calceolus) have bloomed profusely. 
Fringed polygala (Polygala paucifolia) is a diminutive plant only three to six inches in height that produces a beautiful pink to purple colored flower Fringed polygala (Polygala paucifolia) is a diminutive plant only three to six inches in height that produces a beautiful pink to purple colored flower My friend, Clark Bloswick, sent me a beautiful picture of another late spring flower and inquired as to what it was. It was the fringed polygala, or gay wings. Fringed polygala (Polygala paucifolia) is a diminutive plant only three to six inches in height that produces a beautiful pink to purple (I usually call it magenta) colored flower. Very rarely a white flowered fringed polygala may be found. The petals form a tube that is tipped with a delicate fringe, and there is a wing on each side of the tube. The flowers are about .75-inch long, and only a few are grown on each plant. The blooms grow out of the axils of the leaves. This is an insect-pollinated plant. The lower keel-shaped petal, which has the yellow or white fringe, encloses the reproductive structures, and when a bug lands on the keel, the structures are exposed for pollination. The blossoms might remind one of an orchid, but it’s not an orchid, instead it is in the milkwort or polyganaceae family. The three to six leaves are oval or egg-shaped and are generally clustered at the top of the plant’s stem. There are small, scale-like leaves lower on the stem, and these leaves remain green throughout the winter.

Fringed polygala is usually found in moist woods and swampy areas. I’ve found them along Huron Road in the damp woods near Sunrise Cottage, just inland of the shore road (M-185) on the east side of Mackinac Island, and Mr. Bloswick found them in the woods near the State Road. Damp, rich woods seem to be where they grow best. According to Edward Voss’s “Michigan Flora,” they are found “in all sorts of mixed and coniferous woods, except the wettest and driest, most often with fir, cedar, birch, aspen, hemlock, and pines; on old shoreline ridges of calcareous rubble and sandy beach meadows, usually shaded.” Their liking of “calcareous rubble” explains why they grow so well on Mackinac Island’s rocky limestone soil. By the way, if you look them up on Wikipedia, they show a picture of them taken on Mackinac Island. These plants are common, if not abundant, and they thrive in the eastern half of the U.S. and Canada, all the way south to Tennessee and Georgia.

The common name for the family of the gay wings or fringed polygala, milkwort, comes from the belief that ingesting members of the milkwort family increases the milk flow in nursing animals. The only medicinal use of gaywings that I’ve come across is a reference to it being used to treat skin inflammation, particularly abscesses, boils, and sores.

Tuesday, June 10, I saw what I always consider one of the first summer flowers, and that is the eastern columbine (Aquilegia canadensis). It is in the buttercup family and stands up to three feet tall. The flowers are reddish with yellow centers, hanging or nodding at the end of a slender stem, and they are about one to two inches wide. The five petals have long tubes that extend upward into five recurring spurs. The basal leaves are long stalked and they are divided into three and then into three again. The leaves on the stem are similar, but they have no stalks and get smaller toward the top of the stem. The leaflets are always in threes. They are often found in rocky woods and ledges, and you can usually find them throughout the month of June.

If you have time, try to get out and enjoy the late spring flowers before they all disappear until next year.

Trish Martin is a year-around resident of Mackinac Island, has earned a master’s degree in botany from Central Michigan University, and owns Bogan Lane Inn.

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