A Carpet of Trilliums, Superstars of an Up North Spring

By MIKE NORTON Come on. You knew it couldn't last. Several weeks of astoundingly warm temperatures had some Traverse City folks dreaming of an early summer, while local fruit growers (who've seen this sort of thing before) worried that all the heat would simple make their orchards and vineyards more vulnerable to the inevitable return of cold weather. Well, the chilly mornings have returned. Instead of temps in the 80s, we're looking at the 30s and 40s. No more sunbathing weather for a while. On the other hand, this is more like a normal late-March week - except that the grass is much greener than usual, the daffodils are out, and the sun is shining brightly. As the TV announcers used to say, "We now return to our regularly scheduled programming." Which, of course, means that we'll have a little more time to devote to the cooler and gentler aspects of spring - like, say, mushrooms and wildflowers! Every spring, the forested hills around Grand Traverse Bay begin to fill up with crowds of eager, determined hunters. But none of them have guns. Most, armed with mesh bags and long sticks, are searching for morel mushrooms - the culinary Holy Grail of the northern woodlands, which attracts literally thousands of gourmands to this area each April and May. But for others, the quest is more aesthetic: they're on the lookout for "spring ephemerals" - shy plants that grow, bloom and disappear for a few brief weeks between the end of winter and the start of summer. The Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy is one of several Traverse City environmental groups that hold annual "wildflower walks" to popularize these short-lived jewels of the spring woodlands. In fact, a growing number of parks and nature preserves are incorporating such walks into their programming in response to an increase in requests from spring visitors. Some spring flowers don't seem so shy - like the huge white blossoms of the large-flowered trillium, the signature wildflower of our northern woodlands. Trilliums (so called because each plant bears only three leaves and a single three-petaled flower) can be an impressive sight when they carpet the spring forest. Their sheer numbers can sometimes conceal smaller, more delicate neighbors like the trailing arbutus, bloodroot and starflower. Other spring ephemerals are hard to hide, even among the showy trilliums. Blue hepaticas and violets, red columbines, yellow trout lilies and bellworts, purple gaywings, delicate pink spring beauties are easily recognized by their bright colors. (And in the case of the latter, by their sweet scent, which fills the woods on warm spring days.) Even some of the smaller white flowers can make an impression by the sheer whimsicality of their shape. Dutchman's Breeches, for instance, really do look like nothing so much as pairs of upside-down puffy white bloomers. And there's no hiding the superstars of the spring forest. Northern Michigan's native orchids -- the pink, yellow and showy lady's slippers -- are rare standouts in any setting and easily draw attention to themselves.

Tiny Treasures: Spring Beauties and Dutchman's Breeches

May and June are the best months for viewing spring ephemerals in the forests around Traverse City, but I'm guessing you'll be able to see some of the early ones already - I was already finding hepatica in bloom out by Old Mission Point this weekend. Usually, upland woodlands break into bloom first because they're farther from the cooling influence of the cold Lake Michigan waters, while coastal forests can still be in flower for a week or two later. Here are several prime spots for spring wildflower viewing: Grand Traverse Natural Education Reserve. Located just outside the city on the banks of the Boardman River, this preserve encompasses several miles of mixed forest, wetlands and meadows and is particularly rich in plant, animal and bird specials. The Boardman River Nature Center conducts regular spring wildflower walks and publishes a self-guiding brochure for those who would rather explore on their own. For information, call 231-941-0960 or on line at http://natureiscalling.org/boardman-nature-center/ Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. This 71,000-acre national park includes 35 miles of Lake Michigan coastline and a wide variety of plant and animal habitats. The hardwood forests near the dunes are particularly rich in spring flower displays, and the park conducts spring "ranger walks" to them. For information call (231) 326-5134 or on line at www.nps.gov/slbe/ Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy. This five-county volunteer organization supervises a network of 28 nature preserves, and conducts guided walks, hikes and other expeditions throughout the year - including several spring wildflower walks. For information, call 231-929-7911 or on line at www.gtrlc.org