The trillium, star of our spring woodlands, turns pink late in its bloom.
The trillium, star of our spring woodlands, turns pink late in its bloom.

By MIKE NORTON 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 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. That's when our woods are at their loveliest, at least at ground level. There are places where the whole forest is just flowers, and in a few weeks they're completely gone. You'd never know they'd ever been there. Fortunately, it's easy to join some of the many annual "wildflower walks" held around Traverse City to see these short-lived jewels of the spring woodlands. Many local parks and nature preserves have incorporated such walks into their programming in response to an increase in requests from spring visitors.

On a Wildflower Hike in the Sleeping Bear Dunes
On a Wildflower Hike in the Sleeping Bear Dunes

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. In fact, it's hard to find another place where you can find such a variety of wildflowers in such a variety of habitats, all so close to one another.

Darn, they're cute -- Dutchman's Breeches in the woods
Darn, they're cute -- Dutchman's Breeches in the woods

May and June are the best months for viewing spring ephemerals in the forests around Traverse City. 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 wildlflower viewing: Boardman Valley Nature Center. 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 Grand Traverse Conservation District 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 www.NatureisCalling.org 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