Although the trees are still devoid of leaves, ephemerals sprouting from the ground are hinting at the start of spring. These miniature flowers belong to Erigenia bulbosa, also called the harbinger of spring or “pepper and salt” from the white petals and coffee bean-like anthers. Just a few inches of the ground with petals 3-4mm long, they are easy to pass by. Insects are still scarce, but some of the more resilient ones like sugar ants (Tapinoma sessile) are already making the most of the available nectar.
Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) is another ephemeral on the rise, this one from the poppy family (Papaveraceae). Its roots contain high concentrations of toxic alkaloids, which may cause delirious effects in cattle when rooted up and ingested. Although unpalatable to mammals, ants are keen to retrieve the plant’s fleshy elaiosomes for the colony’s developing larvae. As a byproduct, the encased seeds are also transported back to ant nests, where they will eventually germinate. This ant-plant relationship is mutualistic: the ants benefit from obtaining lipids and proteins, while the plant benefits from seed dispersal (myrmecochory) and growth in a nutrient-rich substrate. Some phasmid species have evolved to take advantage of this process, producing eggs that mimic the appearance of elaisomes. Each egg bears a lipid-rich structure called a capitulum that is likewise consumed by the ants, the egg remaining viable. By incubating in a subterranean environment, it is thought that phasmids experience reduced rates of parasitism by wasps and predation by birds.
A double-flowered meadow rue (Thalictrum thalictroides), about 1.5cm in diameter, showing seven concentric circles of 10 petals as opposed to its typical lone set of five. Double-flowered mutations are not an uncommon phenotype in cultivars (e.g. roses & carnations), though in the wild it’s a treat to find. Despite its long botanical history, the genetic underpinnings of this mutation weren’t unraveled until the early 2000s using Arabidopsis as a system: when two copies of a gene (named AGAMOUS) responsible for the production of stamen and carpel segments are deleted, these regions instead produce petals. Due to the lack of reproductive organs, double-flowered mutations result in sexual sterility, which explains their apparent rarity in nature. In commercial production, however, plants with this mutation can be easily propagated through cuttings.