I could smell spring in the air as soon as I stepped into the forest. Damp soil, sweet green things, and the mineral scent of creek water leaping over stones blended into an irresistible musk. Although sunshine had woken me up at an unreasonable hour, now gray clouds rolled in and time seemed to move backwards toward the sleepy dawn.
The hike to Morgan Falls and St. Peter’s Dome (also called Old Baldy by locals) in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest has become a springtime ritual for me. Gentle slopes, plentiful moisture, deciduous trees, and interesting rocks enrich the soil, which supports an amazing array of wildflowers. In comparison, the sandy hemlock grove near my house is a barren desert. The evergreen shade there doesn’t allow enough of the sun’s energy through to the forest floor to support much of a ground layer.
Early spring sunshine is everything to the spring ephemerals I seek. These short-lived wildflowers have figured out that they can make use of the rich soil in the shady depths of deciduous forests—so long as they get a head start on the trees. With leaf-out just beginning, the forest isn’t so shady right now. In part because they only show up for such a short time each year, these spring flowers have captured many a heart.
In fact, it is the sun who is pulling everyone up – drawing flowers up out of the ground, enticing birds back north from their neo-tropical vacation, and popping me up out of bed. The increasing day lengths and resulting warmth trigger just about every event of spring. “Dear morning,” writes Mary Oliver, “you come with so many angels of mercy so wondrously disguised in feathers, in leaves, in the tongues of stone, in the restless waters, in the creep and the click and the rustle that greet me wherever I go…”
Every step along the path showed me another old friend, and I murmured their names under my breath. Cut-leaved toothwort, with its narrow, toothy umbrella of leaves and tall spray of white flowers, spread in green carpets across damp floodplain soil. If you’ve never seen it, that might be because its entire annual growth and reproductive cycle lasts little more than one month. Then the perennial plant dies back to its underground stems. It is a true ephemeral.
A relative of broccoli, radish, and other mustards, toothwort has edible leaves with a peppery flavor. As with broccoli, its health benefits probably come from tiny amounts of toxins in the leaves. Those toxins exercise your immune system and keep it ready to fight off bigger attacks.
In fact, all plants and the chemicals they contain exist on a continuum from edible to toxic. Medicinal is somewhere in the middle, and Paracelsus (a Swiss German Renaissance physician and botanist from the 1500s) warned—“The dose makes the poison.” Too much of a good thing can still make you sick.
Also taking advantage of rich floodplain soil, the dusty purplish stems of blue cohosh clustered nearby. Pioneer physicians were so impressed by this Native American medicine for “female conditions” that they listed blue cohosh as an official medicine in the U.S. Pharmacopeia. Still, a friend once noted that blue cohosh is “strong medicine,” and it has even been used as an abortifactant.
The succulent, three-leaved clusters of emerging blue-bead lilies hugged themselves with dewy beauty. Spring beauties showed off their fresh pink pinstripes in great carpets of the tiny plants. The deep red flowers of wild ginger hugged close to the ground, calling in ants and beetles with its carrion-like scent. These plants are edible, too, at least in small doses and when harvested at the right moment. Plants develop more toxins as they age to dissuade insects, birds, and mammals like us, from eating them.
Little patches of five-leaved wood anemone poked delicate pink and white buds out of mossy stumps. Delicate green buds clung to the stalk of a Canada mayflower. And the trilliums, oh the trilliums. I won’t describe them, but I do recommend finding yourself a patch, settling in, and waiting for just the right sunbeam to illuminate their pure white faces.
While I wouldn’t put any of that collection of beauties in a salad or a medicine, they nourish our souls just the same…as does the smell of spring, and the warmth of sun peeking out from the clouds on an early morning hike.
As usual, Mary Oliver says it wonderfully: “Behold I say—behold the reliability and the finery and the teachings of this gritty earth gift…for one thing leads to another. Soon you will notice how stones shine underfoot…Look, and look again. This world is not just a little thrill for the eyes…It’s giving until the giving feels like receiving. You have a life—just imagine that! You have this day, and maybe another, and maybe still another…Do you also think that beauty exists for some fabulous reason? And if you have not been enchanted by this adventure—your life—what would do for you? (from “To begin with, the sweet grass.”)

The Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI. The current exhibit, “Nature’s Superheroes—Adventures with Adaptations,” open until March 2015.

Find us on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot, http://cablemuseumnaturalconnections.blogspot.com.