Post by Jen Berlinghof
April is the month when every day seems to bring a new bird flying into the woodland, a new amphibian calling from the pond, a new mammal poking along the river, a new insect hatching in the prairie, and, most of all, a new plant unfurling from the forest floor.
April through the end of May provides ideal conditions to enjoy spring wildflowers. These plants are also called “ephemerals,” which means “lasting for a very short time.” Spring ephemerals take advantage of abundant light in the woodland before leaves emerge in the canopy above. Ephemerals complete their entire life cycle before shade covers the forest floor.
If you haven’t visited your favorite Lake County Forest Preserve lately, come along with me on this virtual wildflower walk to see what’s blooming now and what’s to come.
One of the first plants to push through the matted brown leaves is wild leek (Allium tricoccum). While this plant will not bloom until mid-summer, seeing this carpet of green foliage is a sight for sore eyes that have grown accustomed to a drab winter palette. Interestingly, the abundance of wild leek in historic wetlands, which became the city of Chicago, is credited in part with giving the city its name.
The delicate blooms of sharp-lobed hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba) are often one of the first flowers to show themselves. A tender, hairy stalk and leaves that resemble the shape and color of liver are easy ways to identify this plant, which is also commonly called “liverleaf.” The flowers do not offer any nectar reward, but early spring bees and flies happily collect pollen while chipmunks snack on the fruits.
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is also an early bloomer. While the species’ blooming period lasts two weeks, you have to catch them in the act. Each individual flower blooms for only one or two days. Bloodroot’s wavy leaf wraps around the stem in a protective embrace. The blood-red juice of the roots gives this plant its name and was used by Native Americans as a dye for fabrics and tools.
Like speckled bits of sunshine, pops of buttery yellow marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) are a reward for anyone slogging along muddy trails where these beauties bloom in mid-April. Wood ducks frequent the same types of wet woodlands and have been known to eat marsh marigold seeds.
More widespread are dainty spring beauties (Claytonia virginica) that grow in loose colonies. These small flowers have pale petals with pink stripes that are thought to act as “runways,” directing pollinators to the nectar and pollen. Spring beauties bloom throughout the spring, but be sure to look for them on sunny days. The blossoms droop and close on cloudy days.
You’ll have to look harder for the brownish-red blooms of wild ginger (Asarum canadense), which nestle near the ground under the cover of heart-shaped leaves. These unassuming flowers bloom April through May and are pollinated by ground dwelling critters, such as slugs and beetles.
Late April through June you will see what looks like a collection of miniature green umbrellas scattered across the forest floor. These are the leaves of mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), which are typically left untouched by herbivores due to their poisonous quality and bitter taste. Fertile mayapple plants produce a pair of leaves and a single white bloom that is pollinated by a variety of insects.
Finally, the crown jewel of our spring woodlands has to be large-flowered trillium (Trillium grandiflorum). Revered for its showy, bridal-white flower, this gem blooms during May and June and is a favorite food for white-tailed deer. Once pollinated, trillium blushes pink before the blossom fades. Ants step in and trudge trillium seeds into their tunnels, thereby playing an important role in dispersal.
There is a short window of opportunity to view these wildflowers in their full glory. If you’d like to learn more, join us for an upcoming Wildflower Walk.
If you want to enjoy this flower show in your own yard every spring, do not collect from the preserves (that’s illegal!). Visit our Native Plant Sale, which we host annually on Mother’s Day weekend. This year the sale is May 7-8 at Independence Grove Forest Preserve in Libertyville. Native plants are beautiful, hardy, easy to maintain, environmentally friendly and thrive in Illinois gardens. Native flowering species provide an abundance of nectar and attract wildlife, from butterflies and songbirds to chipmunks and beneficial insects.
Help us blur the lines between natural areas and our own backyards. Landscape with native plants and bring home the beauty of Lake County.