By MIKE NORTON
Flowers, flowers everywhere! Well, after the long winter and the cold spring we've had, it's been a nice treat. The thing is, instead of taking turns, everything seems to be blooming at once! No sooner did the cherry trees start than the apple trees began -- then the lilacs and the crabapples. Here in Traverse City we've had a week of amazing color (and lots of pollen) out in our orchards and deep in our forests.
This weekend, dazed by Sunday's bright sunshine, my daughter Liz and I took ourselves to Pyatt Lake, a little jewel of woods and wetlands near Bowers Harbor on the Old Mission Peninsula. This late in the spring, the usual woodland flowers (trilliums, trout lilies, dutchman's breeches) are faded or disappeared. Instead, we had a wonderful surprise: dozens and dozens of pink lady's slippers -- Michigan's most lovely native orchid -- and hundreds of fringed polygalas, which are so intensely colored that they might as well be orchids.
Some flowers show best because they grow in the shadows, and these are two good examples. So is the lovely starflower, which gets its name from the way it glows in the gloomy shade of deep woodlands. I was so excited that I had to run back to the car for the camera!
Naturalists call these flowers "spring ephemerals" because they're here for such a brief time, and it's well worth taking a trip out into the woods to see them before they're gone. Fortunately, the Traverse City area is one of the best places in the country to see these beautiful blossoms.
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, 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.
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. -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/
Grass River Natural Area. Just minutes from the bustling Shanty Creek Resort, this 1,143-acre preserve features several different forest ecosystems and includes a well-developed network of trails, boardwalks and observation platforms where visitors can observe rare orchids and other wetland species without getting their feet wet. For information about guided walks, call 231-533-8314 or on line at www.grassriver.org
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