By Kate Smith
They're under there, somewhere. I just know they are. Why? Well, because I need to believe in them. That's how it is this time of year, when the sun's heat is an inconsistent tease against the still raw, shiver-producing cold.
If they're under there, then I know soon, spring will be here.
The remaining boulders of snowpack are losing out to a warmth the sun hasn't had for a while. That too is a reminder of what's about to happen.
Every spring, along the banks of the Mississippi River, on the hillsides farthest from the sun's warmth, my faith is rewarded. It happens when I've set out for a walk not thinking this would be the day.
That first true sign of spring shows up with the spring ephemerals - an almost magical group of woodland wildflowers that sprout, bloom, fruit and die back, all within the first weeks of the growing season.
The ephemerals come in many forms: trout lily, trilliums, pasque flower and toothwort are more common in some areas. But in my patch of urban woodland, the tiny bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is proof that life is returning as the soil loosens its icy death grip.
To me, bloodroots are the woodland definition of spring. The common name refers to the reddish color that comes from the sap when the roots are cut open. Their blooms often emerge even before the foliage is out. A slender stalk with a white blossom, eight to 12 petals, and brilliant yellow stamens.
I haven't seen the bloodroot yet this season. It's too early. I was walking this week, searching for a sign. But the snow is just off the landscape. I need to be patient.
There's a hill along the river that can break your heart when you first see the bloodroot. The hill faces north and thaws late and smells of spring long after the other areas of this oak savannah have dried out and are greening up. But when the bloodroots emerge, for several weeks, there are patches of deep green foliage with bobbing white-petaled blossoms. They're tough. A little late snow? Not a problem.
The bloodroot of the Mississippi River gorge in Minneapolis does not have it easy. It is part of an urban corridor, displaced routinely by admitted improvements to our city landscape. It is dug up to make way for paths and walkways, stair improvements and other projects. A wonderful patch near some big old silver maples was taken out by a backhoe intent on improving drainage. Certainly important - drainage is. But even as I accepted the new limestone terrace designed to hold back eroding banks, I mourned the bloodroots the next spring. Now I hold my breath when I see projects that have moved lots of soil - wondering, did they survive?
I planted some bloodroots in my garden, and they are a pleasure. They're often out just before or about the same time as the crocuses. But after planting them in the yard, I realized something.
Seeing them carefully tended in my ephemeral spring garden patch is nice. They are dutiful bloomers and I enjoy them.
But it's different when I see them blooming under the maple-basswood forests of the river gorge. Their very wildness is proof of something. Proof that no matter how many improvement projects come along for my urban wilderness, those small white bloodroot blooms are something to wait for, and have faith in.
Kate Smith is senior editor for Minnesota Public Radio News.