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Spring Is Wildflower Season in Our Forests

The arrival of spring means many things, and among them is the blooming of wildflowers.


A dirt trail in a forest lined by blooming Virginia bluebells.
Virginia bluebells at O'Hara Woods Preserve. (Photo courtesy of Charlie Parchem)

To see this spring show, you’ll need to head to the woods. The woods is where the action is because ephemeral wildflowers are taking advantage of the sunlight hitting the forest floor before trees leaf out.


Ephemeral wildflowers have to emerge from the forest floor, flower and set their seed quickly, before they lose sunlight when tree canopies fill in. Because of this, their blooms don’t last long.


Our forests are full of these wildflowers, arriving in waves starting as early as February. Because the blooms last only a short time, each trip to the woods in spring can be a new experience.


Our spring wildflowers can be identified based on many factors, but the easiest is their flowers. Here is a look at many of the ephemerals that pop up in Will County each spring.


Skunk cabbage


Skunk cabbage emerging through a bed of leaves.
Skunk cabbage. (Photo by Chad Merda)

Skunk cabbage is the true early bird among our local wildflowers. It is the earliest flowering plant we see in Illinois. It typically blooms in late February or early March, and a little snow cover won’t stop it. It generates its own heat, allowing it to melt surrounding snow as it pokes up from the ground.


Skunk cabbage doesn’t have flowers like you might expect. The first part of the skunk cabbage to emerge above ground is a maroon-colored hood-like structure called a spathe. With that is the spadix, which is covered with many little blossoms. The hood surrounding the spadix keeps the flowers warm.


Skunk cabbage earned its common name for exactly the reason you probably expect. The plant gives off an undesirable odor when crushed or bruised. The smell serves an important purpose. It attracts flies that pollinate the plant.

Harbinger of spring


Tiny harbinger of spring blooms next to fallen leaves and green sprouts.
Harbinger of spring. (Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

You have to have quite an eagle eye to find tiny harbinger of spring blooms popping up from the forest floor. They bloom as early as February in southern Illinois and usually by mid-March elsewhere.


Harbinger of spring is often found growing in clusters, but they can still be hard to spot. They stand only about 5 inches tall, and the little white flowers usually appear before the leaves. The purplish-red anthers can provide a tiny pop of color when they bloom, but they slowly fade to black.

Bloodroot


A bloodroot blossom surrounded by brown leaves.
Bloodroot. (Photo by Anthony Schalk)

Bloodroot is another ephemeral that begins to bloom in March and can last through May. Look for bursts of white on the forest floor, and it may be bloodroot that has caught your eye. The white flowers are large by ephemeral standards, reaching as much as 1½ inches wide. The plants typically stand between 6 inches and 12 inches tall. Each flower has many petals, and they usually appear in multiples of four.


The “blood” in their name is a reference to the plant’s sap, which is a bright red color. Bloodroot is harder to find on overcast days because the white flowers don’t always open up.

Hepatica


A cluster of five purple hepatica blooms.
Hepatica. (Photo by Chad Merda)

Pops of purple in early spring may very well belong to hepatica. They bloom from March through May in Illinois.


Two species of hepatica are found in the eastern part of the continent. Sharp-lobed hepatica and round-lobed hepatica are differentiated by the shape of their leaves.


Hepatica produces star-shaped flowers, and the plants can grow to be 12 inches tall. Sharp-lobed hepatica is the more common of the two varieties, but the two species can sometimes grow near each other.


Purple is the most common color for hepatic blooms, and the shade can vary from very light to dark. Blooms can also be pink, blue or white.

Spring beauty


A group of five spring beauty blooms surrounded by brown leaves.
Spring beauty. (Photo by Chad Merda)

Pretty pinkish flowers on the forest floor in early spring are likely spring beauties. These delicate looking flowers have white petals with pink streaks or stripes. The shade of pink can vary from light to almost crimson.


Spring beauties don’t grow very tall — usually only about 6 inches — but they often grow in large clusters, so they can be a breathtaking sight. Although they are a woodland wildflower, they are sometimes found growing away from our forests in meadows, parks and even yards.

Cut-leaved toothwort


Cut-leaved toothwort surrounded by brown leaves.
Cut-leaved toothwort. (Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Cut-leaved toothwort produces long, slender stems that can grow to be 8 inches to 15 inches tall. The flowers are white or pale pink, and they often face downward.


Toothwort got its common name because of the tooth-like projections on the plant’s underground stems. Cut-leaved toothwort is further named for the deep cuts on the lobes of its leaves.

Trout lily


Yellow trout lily surrounded by other emerging vegetation.
Yellow trout lily. (Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Our local trout lilies come in two colors — white and yellow. White trout lily is more common than yellow, but both bloom from April through May. The plants grow to be 6 inches to 9 inches tall, and the flowers nodding downward with petals facing up to the sky.

Trout lily often grows in large colonies, but not all the plants will produce flowers. It takes about seven years for trout lily plants to bloom for the first time. Until then, the plants can be identified from the mottled green and brown leaves, which are said to look like trout.

Trillium


Prairie trillium surrounded by grasses and other vegetation.
Prairie trillium. (Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Many species of trillium grow in Illinois, but the most common include prairie trillium and great white trillium. The plants are called trillium because the prefix "tri" means three, and each plant generally has three petals, three sepals and three bracts.


Look for all our local trillium species in rich, moist woodlands, even prairie trillium, which has a misleading name. Great white trillium has white flowers, while prairie trillium produces maroon blooms.

Dutchman’s breeches


Dutchman's breeches surrounded by leaves and vegetation.
Dutchman's breeches. (Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

If you’ve ever seen Dutchman’s breeches, you know how they got their name. The tiny blossoms look like a Dutchman’s pants hanging upside down from a clothesline. This plant is also sometimes called little blue staggers because it can cause cattle who graze on it to become intoxicated because of toxic substance in the plant.


Dutchman’s breeches are most often found in rich woodlands. They begin to bloom in mid- to late March and last until May. Blooms are usually white but can be pink in color. The plant generally grows to be between 4 inches and 8 inches tall.

Wild geranium


A closeup of wild geranium flowers.
Wild geranium. (Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

By mid-April, a second wave of wildflowers begins to bloom, and this is when we usually start to see wild geranium. It typically blooms from mid-April through May in Illinois. Look for pale pink or purplish blooms with five rounded petals.


Wild geranium often grows in large colonies, so look for masses of vegetation about 12 inches to 18 inches high and then look for the colorful blooms. You can find wild geraniums in just about any forested habitat. You may also find it near streams and creeks and in some fields.

Wild ginger


A closeup of a wild ginger bloom.
Wild ginger. (Photo by Chad Merda)

Most of our spring wildflowers are easiest to identify from their flowers, but wild ginger is one that can be easy to spot from its leaves. Look for plants that have heart-shaped leaves growing in clumps up to 8 inches tall.


The flowers on wild ginger plants grow under the leaves, so you’ll have to get down low to see them. They are maroon in color, and they typically bloom from April into May. The color and location of the wild ginger blooms helps attract these flies in hopes it will pollinate the plants.


Anemone


A closeup of false rue anemone blooms.
False rue anemone. (Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Anemone is another family of wildflowers, with multiple species found in Illinois. Among the species you may find in the preserves and beyond are rue anemone, false rue anemone and wood anemone. All three species produce white blooms and three-lobed leaves and are typically found in moist woodlands.


There are several differences between rue anemone and false rue anemone, but the most obvious to amateur wildflower enthusiasts may be in how they grow. While false rue anemone often grows in large colonies that blanket the forest floor, rue anemone plants don’t often cluster together and typically have space between them.

Virginia bluebells


A closeup of Virginia bluebell blooms.
Virginia bluebells. (Photo by Anthony Schalk)

The real showstopper each spring are the Virginia bluebells, which typically begin to bloom locally in late April and early May. In many places, including several Will County preserves, the bluish-purple blooms of Virginia bluebells cover large expanses of the forest floor.


The bell-shaped flowers nod downward and often attract early-season insects. Like most spring ephemerals, they thrive in moist woodlands and floodplains. They can grow up to 2 feet tall but die back not long after the bloom period is over, leaving open spots in the forests where they once shined.

Mayapple


Mayapples growing up from the forest floor.
Mayapple. (Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Mayapple is another of our spring wildflowers that is more identifiable by its leaves than its flower. The large leaves can be up to 14 inches wide, and they look like umbrellas on the forest floor. Mayapple often grows in large colonies, so these umbrella-like leaves often cover large expanses of the ground.


Like wild ginger, mayapple flowers grow below the leaves, so they aren’t often seen. The white flowers bloom from late March into June. Once the flowers are done blooming, the plants produce the small “apples” for which they are named.

Jack-in-the-pulpit


A closeup of Jack-in-the-pulpit.
Jack-in-the-pulpit. (Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Jack-in-the-pulpits emerge from April into May, and once you’ve seen this plant you aren’t likely to forget its name. Its unusual appearance gives rise to its unusual name. The so-called jack is a spadix covered in teeny, tiny green or purplish flowers. It emerges first, followed by the pulpit, which is the plant’s spathe. The pulpit, or spathe, forms a hood-like structure around the spadix, offering shade and protection from the elements.


Like our other spring ephemerals, it grows in the woods, but it is partial to hillsides. In its early years, jack-in-the-pulpit produces only male flowers. As the plants get older, they produce both male and female flowers.

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