Spring Wildflowers in Southwestern British Columbia
The Beauty of Spring Flowers
Spring comes early in southwestern British Columbia. 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, 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, where I live. I enjoy taking photographs of my discoveries. I've chosen seven of my favourite spring flowers to describe in this article. Unless stated otherwise, all of the photos in the article were taken by me.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 a tea from the bark, which was used as a laxative and a tonic.
Although the flesh of an Indian plum fruit can be eaten, the pit inside the fruit must be avoided. It contains toxic chemicals called cyanoglucosides, which are also found in almond pits.
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). Some people say that boiling the leaves reduces the 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 is actually made of an aggregation of many small flowers. The true flowers are known as 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 attached to it. This catches the wind and distributes the fruit to a new habitat.
A Timelapse Video: Dandelion Flower to Seed Head
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.
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.
Pacific bleeding heart is poisonous, though there is some disagreement about its degree of toxicity. It's important that children and pets don't eat the plant and that they get medical attention if they do ingest it.
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 also been developed.
The daisy (Bellis perennis) is a pretty flower with a yellow centre and white petals that are sometimes tinged with pink. It's a European native but has been introduced to North America. The plant is sometimes known as the common daisy, the lawn daisy, or the English daisy.
The word "daisy" may be a shortened form of "day's eye". The derivation would be appropriate because a daisy flower closes at night or during dull light and opens in the morning or in bright light.
Young daisy leaves can be eaten in raw or cooked form. The leaves become bitter as they age, however. The flowers are also edible and can be added to salads along with the leaves. Once again, it's important to be certain of the plant's identity before collecting it for food. Another point to note is that the plant belongs to the Aster family, like the ragweed and dandelion. Someone with a ragweed allergy should probably avoid daisies.
Like the dandelion, the daisy has compound flowers. Within each flower head there are two different types of flowers. Each white "petal" is actually a type of flower known as a ray floret. Each yellow knob in the central disk is also a flower and is known as a disk floret. In contrast, all the flowers in a dandelion are ray florets.
Flowering or Red-Flowering Currant
Flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) is a shrub with very attractive and showy flowers that appear early in the season. The shrub grows in the wild and is also a popular ornamental plant. There are a variety of cultivars that can be chosen for gardens and parks.
The flowers are born in hanging clusters and range from pale to deep pink in colour. Some plants seen in the wild may be escaped cultivars from landscaped areas. I think that all flowering currants in bloom are lovely, but the ones with bright pink flowers produce a beautiful burst of colour. They are a cheerful sight, especially against a duller background.
The berries are blue-black and have a waxy surface. They can be eaten raw, dried, or cooked. Unfortunately, they don't taste very good. They're popular with birds, though, and their appearance adds to the enjoyment of a summer nature walk.
The Spanish bluebell is an introduced plant that has escaped from gardens and grows in the wild near my home. It's not a true wildflower, but it's always a lovely sight in spring.
Nature in Spring
Early spring is an exciting time of year for a nature lover in my area. Other plants emerge besides the ones that I've mentioned. I always look forward to seeing the new signs of life.
After the plants appear, the animals follow. The cycle of life continues as spring progresses to summer and then to autumn. Each season has its own joys. Even winter is enjoyable in southwestern British Columbia, especially for a naturalist interested in the birds that spend their winter here. Spring is my favourite time of year, though. I love the spirit of renewal that seems to fill the natural world.
Information about western skunk cabbage from E-Flora BC, University of British Columbia
Nutrients in salmonberries from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture)
Indian plum facts from the USDA
Dandelion information from WebMD
Facts about Dicentra formosa from the Royal Horticultural Society
Bellis perennis entry from the Plants of the World Online, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Red-flowering currant notes from the National Gardening Association
Questions & Answers
I am looking at adding Dicentra Formosa to a community garden common area but noted that there is some mention of it being poisonous. Do you have any knowledge of that?
Pacific bleeding heart or Dicentra formosa is a pretty plant and is popular in gardens. It contains toxic alkaloids (according to a Canadian government web page) and is said to be poisonous if it’s ingested. There’s disagreement about exactly how poisonous the plant is, though. It would be best to keep it out of reach of young children and pets.Helpful 1
© 2013 Linda Crampton