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Northland Nature: Fiddleheads grow on forest floor

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.

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The fiddlehead of ostrich fern will grow to be very tall. (Photo by Larry Weber)
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Mid-May in the Northland is a remarkable time. Spring’s pace is so fast that it is hard to follow all that is happening. Within our yards, we see flowers blooming, green grass growing, garden ready for planting and trees that have been bare for so long are now greening new leaves.

Yes, May is the greening month. With ample rainfall, we’ll see even more. But there is plenty going on in the forest as well.

During a recent woods walk at Jay Cooke State Park, I was surrounded by May happenings. On such a visit to a site like this, I like to wander at a slow pace, seeing as much as I can. I came here to look at spring plant life on the forest floor, but trees get attention, too.

The small trees of wild plum, pin cherry, juneberry and elderberry are holding their white blossoms. Nearby, large sugar maples are covered with flowers of their own — staminate or pistillate flowers that hang from the branches.

Flitting through the trees are recently returned avian migrants. I note warblers, sparrows and thrushes.

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Trees are growing new green leaves and by the end of the month, these woods will be shaded. But as I wander here now, I am surrounded by spring wildflowers that are eager to grow and bloom. During my walk, I find about 20 kinds showing their colorful petals: whites (bloodroots, trout-lilies and trilliums); yellows (trout-lilies, bellworts and violets); and pink/purple (violets, wild ginger and the numerous spring beauties).

I frequently stop and look in every direction to see these flora. I’m not alone in finding these colors, and pollinating bees are here, too. Soon, these opportunists will fade, many leaving almost no sign that they were ever here in the coming summer.

Among the wildflowers are other plants taking advantage of the present conditions: ferns. And these will persist into the summer.

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Fiddlehead of lady fern. Note the scales on the stems. (Photo by Larry Weber)

Ferns are not flowering plants. Though they do grow large and green, their lives are quite different. They thrive in the shady woods of summer, but appear to “die back” in fall, only to reappear in spring. Plants remain alive all winter underground in a structure called a rhizome.

With the warming weather and longer days, ferns respond by growing new leaves. (Leaves on ferns are called fronds.) Instead of growing fronds from buds as seen with flowering plants, ferns unroll new fronds as spring progresses. Growing in this fashion, they are called fiddleheads (looking like a scroll on a violin — “fiddle”).

In the woods where I am, about a dozen kinds of ferns can be found on a summer day, and some are quite large. Though all produce fiddleheads, many are hard to see. During my present walk, I see fiddleheads of three kinds of ferns that will grow tall and flourish later.

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Fiddleheads of interrupted fern, usually the first fiddlehead to emerge in spring. (Photo by Larry Weber)

Nearly always, the first one to show above the ground in spring is the “hairy” fiddlehead of interrupted fern. This fern will grow to be 3 or 4 feet. The name of “interrupted” refers to a brown growth of sporangia on the green fronds. The tall ostrich fern, at 4 or 5 feet, has a green fiddlehead, largely devoid of hair. The lady fern, at 2 or 3 feet, is very common. Their fiddleheads have dark scales on the stems.

This trio of spring fiddleheads all grow to be large ferns and rapidly, they reach their heights. In a couple weeks, their long fronds will also shade the fading flora. But now, these emerging fiddleheads are part of the delight of a May woods walk (wander).

Larry Weber
Larry Weber

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Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books.
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