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8 Beautiful Spring Wildflowers in Southwestern British Columbia

Linda Crampton is a writer who lives in Greater Vancouver. She enjoys walking and likes to take photographs of her discoveries.

Skunk cabbage grows in damp areas. Its  flowers may appear as early as March.

Skunk cabbage grows in damp areas. Its flowers may appear as early as March.

The Beauty of Spring Flowers

Spring comes early in southwestern British Columbia, where I live. Catkins emerge before the old year is over, and some buds open as early as January. It's wonderful to watch the emergence of different plants as the year progresses, but spring is a special time. The fresh green foliage and the appearance of spring wildflowers is a delightful antidote to the narrow colour range of winter plants.

British Columbia is Canada's most westerly province and is located next to the Pacific Ocean. The province has a wide range of picturesque habitats, including the coastal shore area, mountains, forests, grasslands, lakes, rivers, and an interior "desert", which is technically a shrub-steppe ecosystem. Each region has its own distinctive collection of wildflowers.

March and April are busy times for nature in southwestern BC. I enjoy taking photographs of my discoveries. I've chosen eight of my favourite spring flowers to describe in this article. Unless stated otherwise, the photos in the article were taken by me.

1. Skunk Cabbage

I love to see the first western skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus) emerge. The plant's bright yellow and green colours indicate that spring is about to begin. I'm able to see the first plants push their way through the wet soil because there's a skunk cabbage habitat very near my home. It's located in a damp area by a drier trail, so it's easy for me to find and photograph the plants.

Skunk cabbage is also known as the yellow arum and the swamp lantern. The latter name is very apt, since the yellow sheath of the plant attracts people's attention. The sheath is technically known as a spathe. It encloses a thick, club-shaped stalk known as a spadix. The spadix bears multiple flowers, which are white. The plant has large leaves that have a waxy surface.

As its name suggests, the western skunk cabbage often releases a strong, distinctive odour from the flowers and the damaged leaves. Although many people consider the smell to be unpleasant, in my opinion, it doesn't resemble the odour of skunk spray. The smell attracts the insects that pollinate the flowers of the plant.

The leaves of skunk cabbage contain needle-shaped calcium oxalate crystals, which are known as raphides. The raphides make eating the leaves a very painful experience. The crystals burn the lining of the mouth, damaging it and creating sores.

2. Salmonberry

Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) is a lovely sight in early spring. The pink flowers open up before the leaves and look very striking against the bare stems of the shrub. Salmonberry canes have prickles and sometimes form dense thickets that are hard to penetrate. They are often found at the edge of forests.

The berries ripen in early summer and are yellow, orange, or red in colour. Each berry is a collection of druplets, just like a raspberry. The druplets surround the receptacle of the flower, which stays behind when the berry is picked. The berries are edible but have a variable taste. Some taste rather bland, but others are quite pleasant to eat. Experimentation is necessary to find a bush with good fruit. As always, when foraging for food, it's important to identify a plant correctly before any part of the plant is eaten.

Salmonberries can be eaten raw. They are a nice fruit to sample during a walk or hike and are nutritious. The raw berries are a good source of vitamin C, beta-carotene (which our bodies convert to vitamin A), vitamin K, and manganese. They also contain vitamin E. Some people collect the berries to make jelly and desserts.

A salmonberry flower

A salmonberry flower

Warning

When someone is foraging for wild plants, it's vital that they identify a plant with absolute certainty before they eat it. In addition, the plant should be located in an unpolluted area and should be free of pesticides. Some of the plants in a group should be left undisturbed so that they can reproduce and feed wild animals.

Indian plum flowers

Indian plum flowers

3. Indian Plum or Osoberry

Indian plum (Oemleria cerasiformis) is another shrub that produces flowers and leaves very early in the season. Its name refers to the past popularity of the fruit amongst First Nations people. The First Nations are the indigenous people of British Columbia. Indian plum is sometimes known as osoberry.

The plant has greenish white, bell-shaped flowers. The flowers are grouped in hanging clusters. The fruits are yellow or orange at first but become dark blue as they ripen. They look like small plums.

The fleshy part of the fruit is eaten by birds and mammals, including coyotes, foxes, bears, deer, and rodents. The fruit is safe for humans to eat, but it often has a bitter taste, especially if it's not completely ripe. First Nations people ate the fruit when it was fresh, dried, or cooked. They also made tea from the bark, which was used as a laxative and a tonic.

The Indian plum or osoberry plant

The Indian plum or osoberry plant

Dandelion blossom

Dandelion blossom

4. Dandelion

Dandelions (Taraxicum officinale) are often considered to be weeds, especially when they grow on lawns. I think that they're attractive flowers. The plants have the added advantage of being edible. If you use dandelions for food, pick them from areas that aren't contaminated by pesticides or pollution and be very certain that you have identified the plant correctly. There are several plants in my area that have flowers resembling those of dandelions.

Dandelion leaves can be eaten as a green vegetable, but they have a bitter taste and are a diuretic (a substance that increases the amount of urine that's produced). The leaves are sold in my local farmers' markets. I quite like their taste. Boiling the leaves should reduce their bitterness. The raw leaves are used to make an infusion or tea, and the roots are roasted to make a coffee substitute.

Dandelion has a "composite" flower, which means that one flower head (or inflorescence) is actually made of an aggregation of many small flowers or florets. After pollination and fertilization, a floret produces a fruit called an achene. An achene is a small, dry fruit containing only one seed. A dandelion achene has a feathery, hair-like structure called a pappus attached to it. This catches the wind and distributes the fruit to a new habitat.

Dandelion Clocks and Latex

Playing with dandelions can be fun for children (and sometimes for adults, too). An old game is to blow the achenes off a flower stem. The number of blows needed to remove all the achenes is supposed to tell the time. I can't remember if my dandelion clocks were ever accurate when I was a child, but it was always fun to watch the fruits drift through the air.

The stem of a dandelion flower releases a milky white latex when it's broken. This liquid becomes a rubbery substance as it dries. A weak rubber band can be made by coating the top half of a finger with latex and then gently rolling the band off the finger once it's dried. Dandelion latex is thought to be much less allergenic than the version made by the rubber tree. Someone with a rubber latex allergy should probably avoid touching the dandelion version until more is known about the substance, however.

A Pacific bleeding heart with pink-purple flowers

A Pacific bleeding heart with pink-purple flowers

5. Pacific Bleeding Heart

The Pacific bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa) has interesting, heart-shaped flowers. The flowers are white, pink, or purple-pink and have four petals. The outer pair of petals form a pouch-like structure that curves outwards at its tip. The tip may be darker than the rest of the flower. The flower cluster hangs from the end of a gracefully arched stem.

The leaves of bleeding heart are finely divided and are an attraction in their own right. They often form a carpet over the ground. The plant generally grows in semi-shaded areas, such as open woodlands.

Bleeding heart produces seed pods that contain black seeds. Each seed has an oil-rich, fleshy pouch attached to the outside. The pouches are technically called elaiosomes. Ants are attracted to the oil in the pouches. They carry the seeds away from the flower to feed on the oil. The rest of the seed—which contains the embryo of the young plant—is discarded. In this way, the ant spreads the bleeding heart seeds to new habitats.

Subspecies and Cultivars of Bleeding Heart

There are two subspecies of Pacific bleeding heart. Dicentra formosa subsp. formosa is the most common type. Its range extends from southern British Columbia to central California. Dicentra formosa subsp. oregona has yellow or cream flowers instead of pink and purple ones. It grows from southern Oregon to northern California.

Cultivars of Pacific bleeding heart have been developed for use as ornamental plants. The attractive flowers are appreciated in gardens. Hybrid cultivars between Pacific bleeding heart and other species of Dicentra have been developed. I found the plant in the last photo above in a cultivated area outside an apartment complex. It stayed in bloom for a long time.

A daisy in sunlight