Seven native wildflowers to look for on your early spring hike

April 1, 2022

After a winter of dormancy, there’s little more thrilling than witnessing the first tender green shoots push up from the earth. Certainly, one of the gifts of living in the Midwest is the excitement and exhilaration of new life in spring after a long, cold winter. 

No where are the gifts of spring on display as vibrantly as in the woods. At first glance, woodlands in late March and early April may still look mostly brown, but if you look closely you’ll find an abundance of beautiful and unique native ephemerals, or wildflowers that quickly bloom and then fade, on the woodland floor. It’s especially thrilling for kids to search for them, like a scavenger hunt, and excitedly share their discoveries with you.

We spoke with Joel Horwedel, executive director of Lincoln Memorial Garden and Nature Center, and Alana McKean, Starhill Forest arboretum curator and member of the Illinois Native Plant Society, to share more about their favorite spring wildflowers. We hope these sublime gifts of nature encourage you to plan a spring hike!

Spring beauty, bloodroot and bluebells, oh my!

Spring beauty. Photo by Ryan Hagerty, USFWS

Lincoln Memorial Garden (LMG) is a local gem with 110 acres of restored woodlands, prairies and wetlands along Lake Springfield. In the 1930s, land that was mostly pasture was transformed into a woodland garden planted with species from the three states that Lincoln was connected to: Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois. If you haven’t been there, spring is the perfect time for a hike with your kids. 

“With almost four miles of walking paths, the Garden is a popular spring destination for lovers of flowers and nature,” said executive director Joel Horwedel. “Some of the earliest species that we commonly see are harbinger of spring, spring beauty, and bloodroot. LMG is probably most famous for its large crop of bluebells (we have both blue and white varieties).”

While all of these spring ephemerals bloom at some time between late March and early May, timing varies depending on the species and the current weather. It’s helpful to familiarize yourself with the appearance of the bloom and the foliage, so you can spot the species even if it’s not yet in bloom.

Photo by Ryan Hagerty, USFWS

Harbinger of spring is one of the earliest blooming native wildflowers in the mid-latitude US. 

Photo by Lindsey Flannery

Bloodroot is aptly named for its deep red-colored roots and has been used historically for dye and medicine. 

Photo by Alana McKean

Bluebells are a beloved spring favorite.

Prairie trillium, mayapples and jack-in-the-pulpit

Photo by Alana McKean

Prairie Trillium grows in woodlands of the Eastern US.

Alana McKean, curator at Starhill Forest and member of the Illinois Native Plant Society, spends a lot of time in the woods and enjoys photographing what she finds. “Some of my favorite spring ephemerals that are relatively easy to find are mayapples, wild geranium, prairie trillium, bloodroot, bluebells, and jack-in-the-pulpit. Or really all of them, ha!” Alana said. 

The Illinois Native Plant Society is hosting its first native plant sale in two years at the Illinois State Fairgrounds on Saturday, May 14th. You can find many of the plants listed here to incorporate into your landscapes at home.

“The sale is by far the largest of its kind in central Illinois, usually offering well over 200 species of trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants to suit any garden or restoration project,” Alana said. “Our members grow many of the plants that will be offered and others are grown by quality Midwestern native plant nurseries. At this time, there unfortunately are not any Springfield area retail nurseries specializing in natives, so the INPS sale is always very popular!”

Photo by Lindsey Flannery

Newly emerged mayapples. The leaves will unfurl into a distinctive umbrella shape.

Photo by Alana McKean

Mayapple flowers are short-lived, and often hidden by their umbrella-like leaves.

Photo by Jason Hollinger on Flickr

Jack-in-the-pulpit is surrounded by large leaves that often  hide the gorgeous hooded cup, or spathe, from view.

If the prospect of new plant life isn’t enough to draw you into the woods, plan a hike for the physical and mental health benefits, for you and your kids. Time in nature lowers blood pressure and cortisol (the stress hormone), restores concentration and focus, reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression, and increases feelings of happiness and calm. It may be just what you need to put a spring in your step.

For those cloudy, cold and windy spring days, here are three of our favorite flower crafts from around the web!

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