As we move from winter toward spring, (a little sooner than I would have liked) I am getting excited to start biking around the Northwoods. I spend quite a bit of time road biking, which is not always compatible with one of my other favorite pastimes, looking for flowering plants. By early summer, my bike group and I will be logging 50 or more miles at a time, and there is plenty of Northwoods plant life to appreciate from a bike. We mostly ride on county and town roads out of town, so we aren’t likely to see the showy Forsythia, lilac or crab apples favored by homeowners. But there is still plenty to see and enjoy.
The first shrub to catch my eye is leatherwood, or Dirca palustris. This short, branchy shrub has a distinctive shape as well as yellow-brown bark that makes it easy to identify. It only grows in rich woods and is not very common but is one of the first plants to flower in the Northwoods. It has clusters of two or three small lemon-yellow flowers, and though they are not showy, I’ll bet those early spring pollinators are happy to find them. However, there is evidence the shrub can self-pollinate, perhaps hedging its bets that there will be insects around so early in spring. By mid-summer most of its leaves will be a casualty of a leaf miner, and these damaged, mottled leaves are also easy to spot.
The next plant to watch for as I bike down the road are the Serviceberries. These are also known as Shadbush or Juneberries and are in the genus Amelanchier. Serviceberries are shrubs or small trees, with large-ish white flowers with five rather floppy petals. The flowers cover the tree, and because they, or really any tree, has yet to leaf out, it looks like a small explosion of white scattered in the woods. Those flowers attract early pollinators, and, in a few months, the tree will host a nice crop of berries. If you wait until the berries turn a deep purple, they will be especially delicious to eat. However, all kinds of birds, and especially cedar waxwings absolutely love Serviceberry fruits, and they may beat you to the harvest.
Not long after the Serviceberries come the cherries. The cherry flowers and their clusters are a little tighter than the floppier Serviceberry flowers. We have three cherry species around here, and every year I have to relearn which are which. Pin cherries, Prunus pensylvatica, have small umbrella-like clusters of white flowers and they can be identified pretty easily. Black cherries, Prunus serotina, and choke cherries, Prunus virginiana, both have long cylindrical clusters of white flowers. You can tell them apart because black cherries have fuzzy hairs along the midrib on the underside of the leaf, but I sure can’t see the little hairs while I am biking.
As summer moves on I begin to see Spreading Dogbane, Apocynum androsaemifolium, pop up along the roadsides. These are actually herbs though they get big enough you might think they were shrubs. They have beautiful little pink and white-striped bell-like flowers that smell wonderful. It’s hard to see or smell the flowers as I bike by, but their red stems and paired leaves make them distinctive.
It is almost inevitable that, once in a while, someone on our ride gets a flat tire. I am not much help when this happens, especially when many of our riders take pride in how fast they can change a tire. However, I am a whiz at identifying poison ivy, or Toxicodendron radicans. So, my self-appointed job is to make sure no one plunks down for bike maintenance in a patch of poison ivy, which loves sunny, sandy spots along the roadsides and is so common in the Northwoods.
Fall riding, with the changing leaves is the best. The days are cool, the colors are spectacular and the rides sweeter because we know the biking season is coming to an end. One of my favorite fall rides is up in Mercer, where the maples and other hardwoods are especially colorful. Even better are the long stretches of wetland along Highway J, home to an abundance of winterberry, or Ilex verticillata. This shrub is also known as swamp holly, and both the male and female plants have tiny white flowers that grow right on the stem in the spring. But, in the fall, the stems of the female plants are covered with ruby-red fruits creating a riot of red along the road.
It won’t be long now, before we are flying down the roads, but we never go so fast that we miss at least the more conspicuous Northwoods flowers.