A short, warm stretch in late April, almost 80 degrees: this was a sudden rush toward summer. The comfortable warmth we experience in the early morning lets us know we are beyond the chill. We love that comfort, we know the end of winter means no more bone rattling cold. What is it though that we really long for from spring….
Once the white of the snow is gone we are left with grayish-brown, naked brown trees, muddy brown earth, gray/brown salt by the side of the road. We need color and the first color we always see is yellow-maybe a hint of the warm sun to come.
Of course we are familiar with the bright yellows of forsythia and daffodils. Even though we now have hybridized daffodils of many color combinations, the basic natural daffodil is yellow. We also can’t forget that beautiful yellow dandelion. Yellow flowers are also the first to bloom in the spring.
Let’s go beyond our plantings. The first trace of yellow in the woods is a tiny, single flowered plant, Erythronium americanum, the yellow trout lily.
The trout lily gets its name from the mottled coloration of its leaves: medium green with dark spots of gray mimicking the brook trout. The leaves form a carpet on the ground sometimes covering 40-50 square feet. The leaves are in clusters of two but not all produce the single, downward facing yellow flower. The flowers, when produced, may be ½-1 ½ inches in size and are often missed because the yellow flower itself faces the ground hanging down from a single stem.
These clusters of leaves are really different colonies spreading their roots underground after each blooming. It takes a colony several years to become strong enough to produce that one flower from a two leaf bloom. The colonies differ in age with younger ones having only one leaf and older colonies two leaves and one flower. There are some colonies of yellow trout lilies that may be 300 years old or as old as some of the trees in their deciduous or mixed woodland habitats.
I took a stroll last week during our “heat wave”. As we crossed Wolfpit Brook heading back towards our house, the ground was covered with the trout leaves. Many of these colonies were mature enough to support flowers. Just two years ago this same walk presented many leaves but very few flowers. This Wednesday we went out again, same trail, same leaves, yet they had lost some color and most of the flowers had finished their blooming. In about two weeks all will be gone from view for the trout lily is only above ground up to June at the latest. It then withers, focusing underground to make new shoots for next year. So, come next spring be prepared to search for these wonderful yellow flashes because they will literally be here one day, gone the next.