Plant professors of early spring

Emily Stone

Sunlight illuminates one of the first spring beauty flowers of the season. Photo by Emily Stone.

Last June, I strode down the trail with a roll of duct tape bouncing along in my backpack, and a permanent marker poking out of my pants pocket. A group of 20 Wisconsin Master Naturalist Volunteers-in-Training ambled behind me. We’d had a challenging morning of botany and geology at Morgan Falls in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. Lunch had revived us, and now it was time for the afternoon activity. Anticipation bubbled.  

“During this activity,” I explained, “you will each become a professor of something in these woods.”  

Through the years, I’ve found that this Professor Hike activity is very effective at connecting students to nature. What’s been a surprise, especially as I lead it with adults instead of sixth graders, is how wonderful it is at connecting people to each other as they teach and learn.  

While most of the group opened up their new nature journals to pass the time, I led my first “professor” a little ways down the trail. Maggie and I paused by a big log on the ground, and I asked, “How would you feel about being Professor Coarse Woody Debris?” She was game. I dug out the marker and tape as I explained that foresters use this term to describe fallen dead trees.  

We looked at some punky places on the log where fungi were clearly doing their decomposition work, admired the moss growing in the spongy, water-holding material, and talked about death’s roll in the ecosystem. “Ecologists often say that a tree is more alive when it’s dead,” I quipped.  

Then, as I handed Maggie a strip of duct tape with her professor name written in black marker, she practiced teaching that same information in her own way. Satisfied with her grasp of the material, I waved at the group of remaining students, beckoning one forward.  

“Hello, my name is Professor Coarse Woody Debris,” Maggie introduced herself, and proceeded to teach Craig this little chunk of newly acquired knowledge, ending with a deep thought about how death provides the resources for new life. Then Maggie stayed by her log and invited a new student forward, while I walked Craig down the trail to find a new professor topic.  

Several of the next stops revolved around Jack-in-the-Pulpit, a neat little flower who blooms toward the end of spring and beginning of summer. But the flowers of early May are quite different than mid-June! Jack-in-the-Pulpit won’t even have poked their little green shoots above the soil yet.  

As I prepare to lead another Professor Hike next week – this time as a public program – I’m contemplating who my “professors” will be. On a recent hike in a similar habitat, I found some clues.   At the base of a sugar maple tree, I crouched to look more closely at some blackened rhizomes. These horizontal stems connect the upright plants in a patch. My first thought was “stupid worms.”

The reason the rhizomes were exposed is that earthworms had been feasting on the soil’s maple-leaf blanket all winter, and all that remained now were little piles of worm castings. The stacks of tiny round balls reminded me of cannonballs – both in their shape and their destructive power.  

While European earthworms (brought here with ship ballast or in root balls) are wonderful at breaking down organic matter and mixing the soil in our gardens, they are just too efficient for the plants in our woods. Our northern forests evolved in the absence of earthworms, after the glaciers froze them out.

Many plants here need thick, slowly decomposing leaf litter to grow, and for their seeds to sprout. In this exposed patch, with the continued possibility for nighttime frosts and a lengthening drought, it is easy to see why fallen leaves are important. The tiny fern fiddleheads sprouting from the rhizomes have a back-up plan, though: they are wrapped tightly in a coat of hairs and scales.  

Under a different tree, where the worms hadn’t feasted so thoroughly, I spotted a brigade of tiny, spoon-shaped leaves poking up through the duff. As I crouched to photograph them, I found a tiny chandelier of tightly closed buds. Spring beauty is one of the earliest delights to bloom on the forest floor, but I suspected I was just a day or two early. Then, sunlight glowing through pale pink petals caught my eye. I just needed to look more closely to find the beauty of early spring.  

A little farther along, I paused next to some coarse woody debris. Didn’t I see bloodroot blooming here last year? Scanning the area from a standing position, all I saw were dry maple leaves. When I bent low, though, a miniature grove of white bloodroot buds blushed in the protective embrace of their leaves.  

Note: Portions of this article are reprinted from 2023.  

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is available to purchase at and at your local independent bookstore, too. For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is open with our brand-new exhibit: “Anaamaagon: Under the Snow.” Our Summer Calendar of Events is open for registration! Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.