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Published May 06, 2010, 06:32 PM

Northland Nature: Wild ginger plants keep their hidden flowers open

Unlike most flowers, the wild ginger plants seem to be ashamed of its colorful parts.

The greening of the forests is upon us now and soon we’ll be seeing a full canopy among the trees.

Looking through the open woods as we were able to do for the last seven months is about to end. New foliage is blocking our views. The abundant leaves are also creating a shaded forest floor.

Earlier than usual, spring wild flowers that carpet this scene will need to cope with a darkening world.

Unfolding their petals about three weeks before the normal time this year, many of the diverse flowers that fill the May woods bloomed in April.

They took advantage of the early sunlight and warmth.

Anyone walking the woods now during this warming month will notice that many of the flowers of the forest floor are still blooming.

Some of the early ones are fading, but they are quickly replaced by those that flower a bit later and are more shade-tolerant.

Recently while on a woods walk, I noted that as the bloodroot and hepatica were nearly finished blooming, the spring beauty, anemones, trout-lilies, marsh marigold and trilliums are among those still adding a colorful delight to the leaf-covered ground.

Nearly all of these vernal forest plants hold their flowers up and petals open, trying to get the attention of any passing bees, wasps, flies, moths or butterflies that will transfer pollen for the plants.

With fewer insects about on a cloudy rainy day or at night, many flowers close the blossoms until the return of sunshine.

There are exceptions to this sunny lifestyle.

Though I walked here on a cloudy misty day, I saw two with open flowers: one easy to see, one easy to pass by.

The obvious one that does not close its petals is the marsh marigold (cowslip).

These flowers grow in huge, yellow patches in wet places.

Here apparently, among the damp conditions, insects abound and the plants will continue to be visited regardless of the weather.

The other one is less visible and we may pass by without even seeing its flower: wild ginger.

Two large, heart-shaped leaves, growing from the same stem on the ground, are rather easy to see.

What we don’t usually notice is that down on the soil, at the base of their hairy stems, is a single purple flower.

Purple and urn-shaped with white interiors, this flower is quite unique. Flower parts are fused to give the appearance of three colorful petals.

Unlike most flowers, the plant seems to be ashamed of this growth and keeps the floret low, under the large leaves.

While many others keep the flower up to get insect attention with colorful petals, the wild ginger is more selective in which insects to invite for pollination and open the bloom on the forest floor.

Instead of trying to lure in flying insects, it uses odor to get those that travel beneath the plants, especially ground beetles.

Here, at ground level, the flower can stay open day and night and in any kind of weather.

It may take some bending down to look, but wild ginger flowers are worth this gesture.

Anyone getting down for a close view will be treated to this showy purple blossom that remains open most of the month.

Not only did I see this floral part, I was struck by how common the plant is.

I found huge patches of this often-overlooked plant with the large heart-shaped leaves and the elusive flower among the others in the spring woods.

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books that are available now: “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Fascinating Fungi of the North Woods.”

Contact him c/o