Linda Crampton is a writer and former science teacher with an honors degree in biology. She enjoys writing about science and nature.
The Energy of Spring
The appearance of the first flowers of the year is always exciting for me. It's an interesting event for many people who live on the coast in the Pacific Northwest area of North America. After the relatively mundane colours and inactivity of winter, it’s wonderful to discover that life is awakening from its dormancy. Spring is my favourite season.
Though the predominant colours in my neighbourhood in early spring are shades of green, pale yellow, and brown, isolated patches of other colours are visible. I know from experience that once the first flowers appear, the pace of new flower production in different species accelerates. Some of the early spring flowers won't be around for long, but others will last through the spring and into the summer.
In this article, I describe some facts about spring flowers (wild and garden ones) and the plants that produce them. I took most of the photos in February and March of this year or a recent one, but a few of the photos were taken in early April. The only photograph taken by someone else is the close-up one of a red dead-nettle. I like this photo because it shows the structure of the flowers.
Sexual Reproduction in Flowering Plants
A flower is an impressive reproductive structure. A very basic overview of the reproduction process in flowering plants is given below. This may help readers understand or appreciate some of the facts about flowers that I include in this article.
The female structure in a flower is called a pistil. It consists of the stigma that catches pollen grains, a stalk called a style, and an ovary containing ovules. Each ovule contains an egg cell.
The male structure is called a stamen. It consists of an anther that produces pollen grains and a stalk called a filament. The pollen grains form in the microsporangia of the anthers.
When a pollen grain comes into contact with the stigma, it produces a pollen tube. The tube grows through the style and reaches the ovary containing the ovules and the egg cells. Sperm nuclei are generated within the pollen tube. A sperm nucleus joins to an egg cell in an ovule during fertilization.
After fertilization of the eggs has occurred, the ovules become seeds and the ovary becomes a fruit. The fruit is adapted in some way to spread the seeds to new areas, where they produce new plants.
Many plants require cross-pollination (the reception of pollen from a different member of the species) in order for fertilization to occur. In others, self-pollination does the job.
Crocus flowers provide a beautiful splash of colour early in the year. The ones in my photo above were growing in the wild beside a local walking and cycling trail near homes. The plants belong to the iris family, or the Iridaceae.
Crocus flowers have a variety of lovely colours, including yellow, blue, purple, pink, and white. Some have stripes of different colours. The flowers of many species close in dim light and open in bright light. Though many of the plants flower in early spring, some species produce their flowers in autumn.
Crocuses have tall and narrow leaves with parallel veins. This is a feature of a group of plants known as monocotyledon, or monocots. The term is derived from the fact that the embryo has only one seed leaf, which is known as a cotyledon. Dicotyledons have two seed leaves.
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A crocus flower may be cup or star-shaped. It has what appear to be six petals. They are arranged in an inner and outer layer that each contain three petal-like structures. Technically, the inner structures are petals and the outer ones are sepals. When the petals and sepals of a flower look the same, they are often called tepals.
The visible reproductive structures inside the flower of a crocus are often orange to red in colour. The flower contains three stamens. It also has an ovary with a style that divides into three stigmas at its tip. The plant is pollinated by insects, including bees. There are some insects around when crocuses are flowering, even at such an early point in the year.
A crocus produces an underground structure called a corm, which is sometimes casually referred to as a bulb. Corms and bulbs have different structures, but they both enable a plant to withstand unsuitable environmental conditions under the soil and then produce above-ground parts when the environment is suitable. The corm of a crocus produces a new shoot in the spring and enables the plant to be a perennial in its planted location. The seeds that the flower produces enable the plant to spread to new areas.
Flowering plants are divided into two main groups: monocotyledons or monocots and dicotyledons or dicots. Monocots have long and narrow leaves with parallel veins, flower parts in multiples of three, and other distinctive features. The first five plants described in this article are monocots. The rest are dicots.
Snowdrop flowers first appear in February in my part of the Pacific Northwest (British Columbia). They are one of the first flowers that I see in the year and are a wonderful reminder that spring is approaching. The plant above was growing on the edge of a garden beside the trail. I always appreciate it when gardeners plant flowers where passers by can admire and photograph them.
Snowdrops belong to the family Amaryllidaceae and the genus Galanthus. Twenty species exist. I don't know which species is shown in my photo. The plants are pretty but poisonous. It's important that young children and pets inspect them from a suitable distance and that the plants are kept out of their way, especially when the children or pets are alone.
Like crocuses, snowdrops are monocots. They have long and narrow leaves as well as three inner tepals and three outer ones. The green, ball-like structure at the top of the drooping flowers in the photo above is the ovary. The three outer and longer tepals are white in colour. The three shorter and inner tepals are also white but in addition are decorated with two horizontal green bands.
Snowdrops produce flowers very early in the season, but this is usually no problem for them. They have the ability to withstand cold weather and even snow. In fact, they need a cold period in order to bloom. Even snowdrops have their limit, however. If it gets too cold, they die. Anyone who wants to grow the plants in their garden should check the temperature requirements of the species that they intend to buy.
Not far from my home, there's a house at the junction of two roads that has visible gardens on three sides of the building. The back garden has bee hives and an interesting collection of plants. They are grown without pesticides and in an irregular arrangement. As I walk on the sidewalk beside this garden, I get a good view of the grape hyacinths and daffodils that grow close to the wire mesh fence. The plants grow on either side of the fence, which enables me to easily take their photos.
Grape hyacinth was once classified in the Lily family, or the Liliaceae, but has now been placed in the family Asparagaceae. It has the scientific name Muscari armeniacum. It's not closely related to the true hyacinth, which belongs to the family Hyacinthaceae. The reference below says that grape hyacinth produces flowers in mid spring. I'm sure the ones in my part of the world will still be blooming in the middle of spring, but the flowers first appear in March, generally close to the spring equinox.
The plant got its name because each collection of flowers looks like a bunch of grapes. Each "grape" is an individual flower. The edge of the flower has a white rim. Different varieties of the species may have flowers with a different shade of blue. The flowers expand from the bottom to the top of the collection on a stem, but they are always tubular. The anthers and stigma can be seen if a tube is turned upside down.
The species produces a bulb to enable it to survive over winter. The plants inside and outside of the fence that I visit are increasing in number. The mass of blue flowers is lovely to see. Some people may not like the plant's ability to spread rapidly, however.
I didn’t notice the bee on the left of the second hyacinth shown above until I looked at the photograph. Early-flowering plants are important for insects. Some of the animals are active even in March where I live and when I photographed the flower.
Hyacinths produce beautiful flowers in multiple colours, including blue, purple, pink, and red. They are a lovely sight in spring. They belong to the family Asparagaceae, like the grape hyacinth, but they belong to the genus Hyacinthus. Hyacinths are another plant that produces bulbs. I photographed the ones above outside a townhouse complex. The complex has interesting and photogenic landscaping.
The cultivated hyacinths that appear in March in my neighbourhood are enjoyable to see and photograph. I also like to photograph plants that have escaped from cultivation or that have perhaps been deliberately planted in an unusual place, such as the last one in the sequence above. The plant is located in a small park behind the townhouse complex. The park has trees, grass in some parts, and play areas. Some cultivated plants may not be able to survive in wilder areas without human attention, but I'm always happy when they do.
Hyacinths have bell-shaped flowers with recurved petals at the tip. They have some attractive colours. My favourites are the ones with multiple colours in a single flower. As in grape hyacinths, a person will need to look inside a bell to see the reproductive structures. Since the bells are more open, the structures should be easier to see.
I'm always pleased to see daffodil flowers, not only because of their cheerful yellow colour but also because of their size. A few of the flowers open before the spring equinox, but most appear just afterwards. My favourite types are the pure yellow ones. Daffodils belong to the family Amaryllidaceae and the genus Narcissus.
The flowers in the first photo above are located on an area of undeveloped land at the bottom of my road. They first appeared a couple of years ago. At that time, an older man in my neighbourhood starting taking a portable chair there and reading a book as he sat. I suspect that he or an acquaintance planted daffodil bulbs in the area. I took the last photo in the sequence near the escaped (or planted) hyacinth in the park. It was a cheerful sight amongst the dead leaves.
The central tubular part of a daffodil flower is called the corona. It encloses the male and female reproductive structures. At the base of the tube are the three inner petals and the three outer sepals. They look identical to each other and are often referred to as tepals.
The flowers of wild violet (Viola papilionacea) have a beautiful purple to blue colour. As their name suggests, they belong to the violet family, or the Violaceae one. The plant is a perennial and spreads easily. Despite its attractive flowers, the species is often considered to be a pest. The reference that I've included below acknowledges that some people may want to encourage its growth on their lawn due to its lovely flowers.
The species is the first dicotyledon described in this article. Dicots have wider leaves than monocots, and the leaves have branched veins. The flower parts occur in multiples of four or five. Wild violet flowers have five petals. Two of them have short white hairs at their base. A flower has to be looked at closely in order to see the hairs. The leaves of the plant are heart shaped and toothed.
I photographed the plant above on a patch of grass beside the walking trail in my neighbourhood. The flowers appear there every year in early spring. I have to admit that the plants are spreading. The plants have a rhizome, which helps them to spread. A rhizome is a horizontal stem that produces new shoots.
Forsythia bushes are popular in my neighbourhood. The bright yellow colour of the flowers is alluring. The flowers appear before the leaves. The plant is named after William Forsyth (1737–1804), who was a Scottish botanist. It belongs to the family Oleaceae and the genus Forsythia, Multiple species exist. Olives belong to the same family as the forsythia.
Forsythia flowers are roughly bell-shaped and have flared openings. The four petals of the flowers are deeply divided and are joined at their base. Some of the flowers face upwards, especially on drier days, which displays their reproductive structures.
When the blooming plant is viewed close up, it can sometimes look untidy, but the yellow splash of colour from the bush is very attractive from a distance. Bushes that aren't pruned can look untidy as well, though their colour is still attractive. Forsythia can be unruly, but it's a lovely part of spring in my area.
The red dead-nettle (Lamium purpureum) is a small but pretty plant, despite its rather unattractive name. Less common names are red deadnettle, purple dead-nettle, and the lovely term “purple archangel.“ The plant belongs to the family Lamiaceae, or the mint family. It’s a low-growing plant. The one in my photo was growing in a strip of land outside the wall around a house on my road.
The red dead-nettle has square stems and noticeably veined leaves with a wavy edge. The veins give the leaves a crinkly appearance. The leaves are roughly oval and have a pointed tip. The upper leaves often have a reddish tinge. The leaves are somewhat similar in form to those of stinging nettles, though they are smaller. It's thought that the term "dead nettle" may have been chosen for the plant's name because unlike the stinging nettle it doesn't sting.
The flowers are pink and have five petals. The upper petal forms a helmet, as can be seen in the photo below. The two side petals form a cup-like structure, and the two lower ones appear to hang from the flower. The flowers appear in March and last for a long time.
The leaves of the red dead-nettle are edible and are sometimes collected to add to meals. This is not a recommended action unless a person is positive about the plant’s identity and unless the plant is growing in an environment that is safe for harvesting food. As always, it’s important that a habitat isn’t denuded of a species that is growing there.
The leaves of red dead-nettle are quite small, so they are generally used to provide flavour to a meal instead of being used as a main component.
Daisy flowers can be seen in some parts of southwestern British Columbia throughout the year, but in spring their numbers dramatically increase after the winter minimum. Their name is thought to be derived from the phrase "day's eye." The flowers open on bright days and close on dull and rainy ones.
The scientific name of the plant is Bellis perennis. It belongs to the family Asteraceae, which used to be known as the family Compositae. The flowers have a composite nature. The yellow, inner flowers are technically known as disk florets. The white and outer flowers are more properly called ray florets. In everyday life, however, the whole structure at the top of the flower stalk is called a flower.
Like the dandelion described below, daisies have been part of my life for a long time. As a child, I used to make daisy chains and wear the result as a necklace. The term "daisy chain" has spread to other situations. It refers to linked computer peripherals, for example.
Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) also belong to the family Asteraceae. Unlike the case for the daisy, each dandelion head contains only ray florets. The first blooms appear early in the year, but the flowers can be seen throughout the summer and fall where I live. The first ones that I’ve seen this year were located in the grass at the edge of a park. Some people consider the plant to be a nuisance when it grows on lawns, but its flowers are important for the insects that act as pollinators. The nectar of the flowers is a good source of nutrition for the insects that are active very early in the year.
A fruit is a ripened ovary that has a mechanism for distributing the seeds that it contains. Dandelion fruits are white and hairy and are designed to catch the wind. The fruit is technically called an achene. Since the flower contained multiple florets, the fruit contains multiple achenes. When I was a child, we would record the number of puffs need to release all of the dandelion florets from their receptacle. The number of puffs was supposed to tell the time. I can't remember whether our dandelion clocks were ever accurate, but that didn't discourage us from the activity.
The leaves at the base of the plant are edible, provided they aren't contaminated with pesticides or other undesirable chemicals. They are a good source of vitamin A and also contain vitamin C. They are sometimes sold in farmers markets in my area. They can taste bitter, but I like the flavour. If you pick the leaves yourself, it's vital to identify the plant correctly. The family Asteraceae contains other plants with flowers that resemble those of dandelions.
A Wonderful Time of Year
Spring is a wonderful part of the year and is a great time to explore the natural world. I always see something new on my daily walks during the season. Care may be needed when exploring some places with plants, but when it's safe to do so the rewards of the exploration can be wonderful. Examining nature is enjoyable and educational at any time of the year, but I think spring is an especially interesting time in the Pacific Northwest.
- Crocus facts for gardeners from North Carolina State Extension
- A page about snowdropsfrom Penn State Extension
- Grape hyacinth horticulture from the University of Wisconsin-Madison
- Hyacinth information from Better Homes and Gardens
- Information about daffodils and their cultivation from Southern Living
- Common blue violet entry at the Weed ID Guide from the University of Missouri
- Forsythia factsheet from Clemson University
- A page about the red dead-nettle from plantlife.org
- Common daisy facts from the Wildlife Trusts
- Dandelion information from the University of Wisconsin-Madison
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Linda Crampton