In any study of a flora it is important that the limits of the floral region are clearly defined. By Early Wild Flowers is meant that group of herbaceous plants that finds its most congenial home in a region roughly defined as extending between parallels forty and fifty degrees of north latitude and westward from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi Valley at about meridian ninety-five degrees. West of this boundary, the mid-continental plants appear in numbers, and south of it the plants of Southern type are abundant. This floral region also extends southward along the Appalachian range as far as the Carolinas and Georgia; northern Ohio occupies a central position in this region and, as a consequence, possesses almost the entire flora. It is not meant that these plants are limited to this area, they frequently appear out of bounds, but this is their chosen habitat. The list includes those only that are habitually in bloom during the months of March, April, and May. Many of them, of course, are in bloom during June - nature indulges in no fast-and-hard lines - but none belong to the group of early bloomers; they are not the flowers of early spring unless blooming abundantly at some time during these three months.
It is popularly supposed that the character of the spring greatly influences the opening of the flowers; but really this influence is much less than one might think it would be; the spring flowers are very much like the spring birds, they appear when they are due with very little regard to the immediate weather; they obey the summons of the sun. They may not come so abundantly, but they come on time. By April 20, in the Middle West, the earliest flowers are past and the full flora well under way. In New England the season is later.
In round numbers, our early spring flowers number about one hundred and thirty plants. Most of them are native, not to exceed twenty have come to us from Europe. More than half are purely forest plants, nurslings of the woodlands and found nowhere else. They developed in the unbroken forests of this country, and although a few can adapt themselves to the conditions of open, sunny fields, many cannot and when brought into contact with civilization they disappear. Because of their natural environment they possess certain marked characteristics. Most of them are either bulbous, tuberous, or possess fleshy root-stocks; that is, they have stored in their roots or underground stems sufficient food to enable the plant to bloom before the leaves are in working order; in short, the chief duty of the leaves is to prepare food for the next year. Moreover, they bloom in the forest before the trees are in full leaf; it is their only chance to get direct sunlight and they make the most of it. It is a case of then or never. As a matter of fact, they do not like, and few can endure, direct summer sunshine; they are plants of the shade. Lastly, they lie down to their winter sleep, wrapped in the blanket of leaves which the forest strews over them before the snow falls, thus giving them air and relieving them of the dense pressure of the snow. The few foreign plants which are found among our early bloomers are in the main perennials, or what may be called winter annuals - plants whose seedlings get such a start in the fall that they are able to respond to the first warmth of the sun and swing into the race at once. It is superfluous to state that in the language of this world they are known as weeds. Examples are Chickweed, Dandelion, Dead-Nettie, and Red Sorrel.
The first flower of the Northern spring is curious and interesting, but little known and rarely seen, for its chosen home is the swamp and its time of bloom the sunny days of February and March. Its name, too, is against it. Skunk-Cabbage is neither euphonious nor pleasantly suggestive, and Spathyema foetidus is long and cumbersome. As all the odds are on the other side, it will doubtless remain as it now is, practically unknown, nevertheless its pre-eminence in point of time cannot be disputed. The first spring flower that is generally known in New England and the Middle West, is the Hepatica, which in early April, carpets ravines and open sunny woods with a mass of color - pale blue, soft pink, white, and tinted lavender. This is one of our few spring flowers abundant enough to produce color effects. Closely following the Hepatica and so nearly together that no real precedence can be established among them are: Bloodroot, Spring-Beauty, Dwarf Ginseng, Adder's-Tongue, Dentaria, Meadow-Rue, Anemone, Saxifrage, and in northern Ohio, Harbinger-of-Spring. Trailing Arbutus is placed by New England writers in the earliest group, but it is not among the first in the Middle West nor in the Mountains of Virginia, where it is exceedingly abundant.
One-third of the number are white or but slightly tinted; one-fourth yellow of various degrees of paleness; the others are divided mostly among the blues and pinks; a few greens, one red; a few red purples complete the list. The colors are as one would expect them to be - pale. As there are few brilliant colors, so is there very little fragrance; the characteristic of our early wild flowers is delicacy. They are as wild as the Indian and as shy as the deer. They must, of course, die with our forests; but there is no reason why they might not be coaxed back into our parks. If a bit of woodland were left absolutely untouched, the leaves never raked from under the trees, since it is that more than anything else which kills the little beauties, there is no reason why they should not grow and flourish even within city precincts. Certainly every nature-lover would rejoice to know that our native flowers were protected and preserved from destruction.
It is hoped this book will commend itself:
To the many teachers who are expected to name at sight every spring blossom brought to them by childish hands.
To amateur botanists who wish to check their lists of the flora of their home region.
To all lovers of the springtime who also love the native wild flowers of our woods and fields.
The books of reference for the botanical descriptions are Gray's "Manual of Botany," 7th edition, and Britton's "Manual of the Flora of the Northern States and Canada." Thanks arc due to Miss Myrta L. Jones and to Mr. Carl T. Robertson for the lists of flowering plants recorded. The photographs are mainly the work of Mr. Carl Krebs, of Cleveland.