Your Guide to Spring Wildflowers

Here's a glance at what you can expect to see popping up in the preserves

With warmer weather right around the corner — along with all of those spring wildflowers in The Forest Preserve District of Will County's many preserves — now is a great time to start planning ahead for some trips into nature to see what it has to offer.

Spring ephemeral wildflowers emerge in March to April and are gone by May or early June, so there is a fairly tight window to see the dazzling wildflower displays.

Here's a sampling of what explorers can expect to see in the coming months.

Spring beauty

Photo by Suzy Lyttle

Spring beauties are one of the most abundant of our native woodland wildflowers. The low-growing plant has linear, grass-like leaves that are thick and rubbery in texture. 

The small, white or pink-white flowers have deep pink candy-cane stripes running the length of the five petals. Flowers turn toward the sunshine and remain open only in bright sunlight. Spring beauties may form dense stands, competing with grass in manicured areas where the plant once grew wild. 

Virginia Bluebells

Photo by Cindy Cain

Virginia bluebells grow in great profusion on the rich, moist, bottomland soils of Messenger Woods Nature Preserve. 

Flowers are borne in loose, nodding clusters, with pink buds that open into trumpet or bell-shaped, light blue flowers.

Growing to a height of 1 to 2 feet, the pale fleshy stems and large floppy leaves are weak and watery, and quickly die back to the ground after blooming. 

Skunk Cabbage

Photo by Chad Merda

Skunk cabbage is our earliest flowering plant in northern Illinois. Flowers may be seen pushing through the late February snow cover in wet woodlands and marshes. The distinctive shell-shaped hood is mottled green-yellow to purple-brown. 

It curves up and over a knobby, rounded club which is covered with bright yellow anthers of the tiny flowers. Large, smooth, cabbage-like leaves develop after the blooming season and dwarf the flowers.

RELATED: FIVE FASCINATING FACTS ABOUT SKUNK CABBAGE

Hepatica

Photo by Chad Merda

Hepaticas are one of the first flowers to appear in the woodlands, flowering as early as March. Newly emerged hepaticas have fuzzy, three-lobed leaves and fuzzy stems, with tiny blossoms in shades of magenta, purple, lavender-blue, or palest pink. 

The flowers rarely rise more than 6 inches from the woodland floor. 

The plant gets its name, which means affecting the liver, from the color and shape of the leaves as they persist throughout fall and winter.

Bloodroot

Photo by Chad Merda

Bloodroot is one of the delights of an early spring hike in rich woods, but they are relatively short-lived. The flowers are fragile and a good wind or rain are enough to cause the petals to drop. 

As the plant emerges, a single pale-green leaf coils tightly around each flower stalk. After the flower opens, the large, deeply-lobed and heavily-veined leaf unfurls. The common name refers to the bright red juice which oozes from the root when cut or broken.

Dutchman's Breeches

Photo by Suzy Lyttle

Dutchman's breeches are easily distinguished from any other flower in the spring woods. As its name implies, individual blossoms resemble a pair of pants or breeches. 

Clusters of four to 10 white, pant-shaped flowers hang upside down from an arching flower stalk. Sprays of dusty, gray-green foliage with deeply-cleft leaflets give the leaves a feathery, fern-like appearance.

Squirrel corn

Photo by Juanita Armstrong-Ullberg

Squirrel corn is very similar in appearance to Dutchmans breeches, but its flowers are narrower and more heart-shaped, with short, rounded spurs. Few insects have a proboscis long enough to reach the nectar, so many snip a hole in the side of the flower to reach it. 

Squirrel corn gets its common name from the tubers, which are yellow and resemble corn kernels and which are eaten by mice and squirrels.

Wild Ginger

Photo by Tim Good

Wild ginger grows along floodplains of wooded streams, forming large colonies on the forest floor. Each plant consists of two heart-shaped, ground hugging leaves. A single flower is hidden beneath the leaves lying close to the ground, often covered by plant debris on the soil surface. 

The brownish-purple flower is cup-shaped with three long points coming off the lip. The plant is named for its spicy, ginger-like aroma. 

False Rue Anemone

Photo by Juanita Armstrong-Ullberg

You know spring has arrived when you see this little plant in bloom. It adds a splash of white to the understory of woods still covered with the drab leaves of fall and winter. 

The small, half-inch flowers have five petal-like sepals and showy yellow stamens. It is commonly called false rue anemone because the flower is almost indistinguishable from the native rue anemone. The plant forms large colonies with its creeping horizontal stems. 

Large Flowered Trillium

Photo by Juanita Armstrong-Ullberg

The large-flowered trillium is one of the most attractive spring wildflowers. The name trillium refers to the grouping of flower parts and leaves in threes or multiples of threes. 

The flower has three white petals, three green sepals, six stamens, and three ovaries. A single flower springs from a whorl of three diamond-shaped, dark green leaves. The showy, white flowers turn shades of pink as they mature, creating a beautiful color palette where the plant grows in profusion.

Cut leaved Toothwort

Photo by Chad Merda

Toothwort is a small plant with three deeply lobed and toothed leaves in a whorl around the flower stem. The white to pink flowers are borne in a small terminal cluster of up to six blossoms. 

The four petals curve outward, forming a small cross less than an inch across. Leaves turn a brilliant yellow by late spring, often carpeting the forest floor in colors reminiscent of autumn. 

Blue-eyed mary

 

Photo by Suzy Lyttle

Blue-eyed Mary is one of the most beautiful and in some places, the most abundant of our spring wildflowers. They often completely carpet moist woods and stream edges in April. 

Colorful blue and white flowers cluster in loose whorls of six or so blossoms around the top of the stem. The bi-colored flowers have white upper and blue lower lobes. Thin and delicate plants, the foliage dies soon after flowering.

Woodland Phlox

Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock

Woodland phlox is a common spring wildflower that grows in large spreading patches in moist woods. The slightly fragrant, lilac to rose to blue flowers have five flat, notched, petal-like lobes. Flowers appear in loose clusters at the tips of the hairy, sticky stems. 

Plants are approximately 12 to 18 inches tall. Phlox is from the Greek meaning flame, probably so named for the bright colors of the flowers.

Jack-in-the-Pulpit

Photo by Juanita Armstrong-Ullberg

The distinctive flower of Jack-in-the-pulpit gives the plant its common name. Each flower consists of a club-like spadix (Jack or the preacher) and the leaf-like spathe (pulpit) which curves up and over the spadix. 

The spathe may be green, purple-brown, or striped. Each plant consists of one or two three-lobed leaves which are borne on long petioles. The flower is followed by a cluster of green berries which turns bright red by early autumn. 

Mayapple

Photo by Chad Merda

Mayapples grow in large, dense colonies which spread outward each year. The large, saucer-shaped white flowers are often missed because they are hidden below two umbrella-like leaves that branch from a single stem. Plants with a single leaf do not flower. 

The flowers and fruit have an absolutely delightful fragrance. Because of its size, shape, and color, the large pulpy fruit is often called a ground lemon. 

Wild Geranium

Photo by Chad Merda

One of our commonest woodland wildflowers, the wild geranium is very similar to the geraniums found in landscape plantings and home gardens. The flowers are rose-purple, however, color may vary according to the temperature of the season and their exposure to sunlight. 

As the fruit matures, it suddenly splits upward from the base in five recurved parts, snapping the seeds sharply in all directions. 

Lead image by Tim Good

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