Flowers on Parade
IN LOCAL WOODLANDS
Photo by Sheryl DeVore
Our surrounding woodlands are primed to delight flower lovers during April and May. Pushing their way through the forest floor and opening their blooms are bloodroot and spring beauty in early April, trilliums and Virginia bluebells in late April to early May, and wild geraniums and May apples in May, among many others.
These wildflowers are called spring ephemerals because they bloom in early spring, then disappear almost as quickly as they came. “Seeing the spring ephemerals renews my soul,” says botanist Cassi Saari, president of the Northeast Chapter of the Illinois Native Plant Society (Ill-inps.org). “It’s almost like I’m coming out of hibernation every year. Today, there are only a few places in the region where you can find them in high abundance and diversity.” Habitat destruction and degradation of our local natural areas has caused them to disappear.
Habitat restoration efforts are being done to protect wildflowers in natural areas throughout the Chicago region. Saari and other spring ephemeral lovers are already out in late February or early March to spot the first bloomers, which include skunk cabbage. Humans can barely see the tiny yellow flowers, but spring’s first awakening insects can find skunk cabbage by smell to pollinate the plant. “Skunk cabbage can come out so early because it creates its own heat and can melt the snow,” Saari says. “It’s one of few wildflowers in our region adapted to do that.”
April and May are the prime months to search for spring ephemerals in full bloom. “They’ve adapted to this time of year when the trees’ leaves haven’t come out yet,” Saari explains. “They are taking advantage of this time when there’s more sunlight reaching them.”
Ephemerals, which are native, can be confused with spring flowering bulbs such as tulips or daffodils, which are not native, according to the University of Illinois Extension Service (Web.Extension.Illinois.Edu). Most spring ephemerals die back to the ground after they bloom, but often the leaves of bulbs like tulips remain visible well into early summer.
Saari has special places in the Chicago region to search for specific wildflowers. These include Harms Woods (fpdcc.com/harms-woods), in Glenview, where visitors can view hepatica, wild geranium and trout lily, among others. She visits Lake County to search for great white trillium, which has declined in number because of deer over-browsing, but are now bouncing back due to restoration programs.
Two places to enjoy great white trilliums among other ephemerals carpeting the forest floor are the Edward L. Ryerson Conservation Area (lcfpd.org/ryerson), in Riverwoods, and Captain Daniel Wright Woods Forest Preserve (lcfpd.org/wright-woods), in Vernon Hills. One of Saari’s favorite places to see spring ephemerals is Silver Springs State Fish and Wildlife Area (DNR.Illinois.gov/Parks/Pages/SilverSprings.aspx), in Yorkville. “It’s a beautiful woodland in spring,” she says. “Dutchman’s breeches grow there in abundance. They are the cutest—they look like little white pants.”
Although it’s fun to go traipsing all over the region hunting for spring ephemerals, Saari suggests choosing one natural area near home and visiting it once or twice a week throughout April, May and early June. “You learn so much by going to the same place. You see the progression of the wildflowers,” she says.
Sandy Miller, president of the Lake-to-Prairie chapter of the Wild Ones (LakeToPrairie.WildOnes.org), visits Reed Turner Woodland Preserve (LGParks.org/visit-reed-turner-woodlands), in Long Grove, in spring to watch the succession of ephemerals blooming, with Virginia bluebells at the beginning of spring and May apples and jack-in-the-pulpit toward the end of the spring. “If we don’t have the native flowers growing, then we won’t have native birds and insects and other animals,” says Miller, a Grayslake resident.
Saari notes that most ephemerals cannot tolerate a lot of disturbance, although spring beauty, one of the hardiest, will even grow in lawns. As climate changes and temperature and moisture change from year to year, the peak blooming times can vary for spring ephemerals. Fifty or more spring ephemeral species can be seen in our area. Below is a list from earlier to later of some of the more common bloomers in northern Illinois. Peak blooming times vary from north to south, plus wildflowers overlap in blooming time.
Sheryl DeVore writes nature and science articles for national and regional publications, and has written four books on birds and nature. Contact her at Sheryl.Devore@comcast.net.
Some Spring Ephemerals of the Chicago Region
Hepatica (Hepatica nobilis)
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria candensis)
Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)
Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris)
Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica)
Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica)
False rue-anemone (Enemion biternatum)
Prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum)
Large white trillium (Trillium grandiflorum)
Trout lily (Erythronium americanum)
May apple (Podophyllum peltatum)
Wild geranium (Geranium maculatum)
To see photos of the region’s wildflowers including spring ephemerals, visit Extension.Illinois.edu/wildflowers.
Spring Wildflower Walks
Here are four wildflowers walks to attend. Registration is required. Call first.
April 20 – 1 p.m.
Spring Wildflower Walk
Sagawau Environmental Learning Center 12545 W. 111th St., Lemont. Free.
April 28 – 2-4 p.m.
Woodland Wildflowers and Wildlife
Ryerson Conservation Area
21950 Riverwoods Rd., Riverwoods
$5-$7. Call 847-968-3321
May 11 – 9:30-11 a.m.
Wildflower Walking Tour
Emily Oaks Nature Center
4650 Brummel St., Skokie
$5-$6. Call 847-677-7001
May 11 – 1-3 p.m.
Wonders of Wildflowers
13800 W. Bruce Rd., Homer Glen
Free. Call 708-946-2216