(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on May 1, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
As long as I can remember, spring was a special time for walking in the woods and looking for delicate, often elusive wildflowers. When the first emerald green skunk cabbage starts popping up along local streams, the debate begins. We watch the weather and search our memories of past springs, deciding whether this is the day to set off on an expedition to the mountains or to hike through one of the local parks. The goal is to catch the spring wildflowers at their peak, preferably on a sunny, blue-sky day.
Everybody has their own favorites among the spring wildflowers. My mother loves the pristine grace of the Trilliums, blooming in the dappled shade of little valleys. We felt especially lucky whenever we came upon one of the less common red trilliums, which she calls "Wake Robins." Trout lilies seem to like similar locations, and I was delighted to find a large expanse of them in full bloom one year. Before, I'd only spotted them in small clumps, often seeing the spotted leaves that give them their names before seeing their nodding yellow blooms.
Spring Beauties, with their delicate stripes of shell pink, have been a favorite of mine for years. As a child, I was once very late for school because I was distracted by a stream bank filled with spring beauties in bloom. I just knew my teacher needed a beautiful nosegay of them for her desk, and I was completely oblivious to the time it took me to gather them.
Bluets are another delicate spring wildflower. Their fragile blooms are breathtaking in contrast to the tree trunks and gnarled stumps they often surround, but it's a beauty that's been hard to capture with my camera. There's a magical quality to such diminutive flowers. When you find them blooming beneath the umbrella-forms of new Mayapple shoots, it's not hard to imagine tiny fairies holding spring revels there in the hollow between the roots of a forest giant.
Wildflower hikes aren't about logging exercise miles, although one of my favorite parks has a steep path aptly named "Coronary Trail." Strolling slowly, with many pauses to look around tree trunks and under the edges of clumps of brush, will let you discover a variety of delightful little flowers you'd never have seen otherwise.
As you get better at spotting little splashes of spring color among the litter of fall leaves and still-dormant brush, you'll start learning where to look for particular wildflowers. Open, sunny areas may host Woodland Phlox, or Colt's Foot, or Wood Violets. Low, damp areas are good for spotting Jack-in-the-Pulpit, or Dutchman's Breeches. Correctly or not, we always thought that Liverworts liked to hide around the mossy, north side of trees. Areas where brush is periodically cleared for trails or pipe-lines are colonized by different plants than less disturbed parts of the woods. The more closely you look, the more you'll see.
Not sure where to start? Look for a Wildflower Society or Native Plant Organization near you. You may find a website listing local parks with trails that are especially good for spring wildflowers. Most of the photos in this article were taken in Duff Park (Murrysville, PA), where several organizations host wildflower walks and organize trail improvement efforts. Also, check out DG's Native Plants and Wild Plants discussion forum. There's a wonderful thread underway now for sharing photos of spring wildflowers!
My favorite book for identifying wildflowers is Newcomb's Wildflower Guide (ISBN-13: 978-0316604420). It's the definitive field guide for northeastern and north-central North America, combining clear descriptions with an efficient botanical key.
Happy May Day!
Photos by Jill Nicolaus.