Wisconsin’s Woodlands are Brimming with Blooms
We’ve had the April showers. Now it’s time for some May flowers! Head for the woods—any woods—for a visual feast as the first really warm temperatures of the year and the sunlight that reaches the ground unimpeded by a full canopy of summer leaves coax forth an abundance of colorful wildflowers.
“Spring wildflowers all have their own stages of when they bloom so you can keep going out all month and it will look different each time,” said Megan Giefer, a naturalist at Beaver Creek Reserve in Fall Creek, located on Eau Claire Energy Cooperative’s lines.
Beaver Creek Reserve is a multi- purpose nature campus comprising 400 acres of diverse habitats, with nine miles of hiking trails and multiple facilities including the Wise Nature Center, Hobbs Observatory, and a seasonal Butterfly House. It’s an ideal place to explore Wisconsin’s woodland wildflowers, located as it is between the state’s northern and southern regions.
“It’s really fun to visit different places in the state and see all the different kinds of plants and different colors,” Giefer added. “Up north they’ll get similar plants to ours but they come a little later in the year. We also see some that are more common in the southern areas. We’re kind of in the middle so we get a lot of both. That’s a fun thing about being in the Chippewa Valley area.”
While Beaver Creek Reserve is a perfect place to plan a spring wildflower walk, it’s not the only place. State parks and natural areas throughout Wisconsin are all great sites to spot wildflowers. The woods in your community’s local parks, or even your own back yard, will be blooming as well.
Wherever the woods, there are some common guidelines to consider when planning a spring wildflower walk.
- Wear boots. Giefer explained that spring woodland wildflowers thrive in the moist soil along the forest floors, and spring rainshowers and flooding can quickly turn the ground quite wet. “Plan to get a little muddy if you want to come and see the flowers,” she said.
- Look low. Spring woodland wildflowers tend to hug the forest floor, where it’s damp. Forego the hillsides and explore deep into the woods.
- No picking. Wildflowers are protected, and it’s illegal to pick them in Wisconsin. Giefer noted that picking a bouquet of wildflowers to take with you is pointless anyway, as they wilt quickly once they’re picked and likely wouldn’t even last the trip home. “They need to have their stem in the ground,” she said. Instead, bring a camera and take some beautiful pictures home with you.
- Tune in to the temps. Like all growing things, wildflowers are weather-dependent and their season varies accordingly. Giefer said spring woodland wildflowers generally start appearing when the temperatures consistently reach the upper 50s, 60s, and low 70s. As the temperatures climb to the upper 70s, the spring blooms start to fade and give way to summer varieties.
Forest Flora Favorites
Giefer suggested several varieties of May wildflowers to watch for on a walk through the woods:
This small, delicate flower with its pink and purple hues is a common sight at Beaver Creek Reserve in mid-spring. The flower’s five petals are typically white or pale pink with fine, purple stripes running the length of each petal. The flowers form in clusters, creating a burst of color.
“This one really thrives at Beaver Creek. It is the most beautiful flower and it completely coats the forest floor on our south trails,” Giefer said. “It’s just amazing—it’s a sea of pink.”
Sometimes mistaken for a weed, these shade-loving plants don’t resemble a typical wildflower. “This one is my favorite—it’s very unique,” Giefer said. “It looks like a pitcher, like it could be filled with water. It’s almost like a cup with a lid—that’s how I think of those.” This green and maroon cup-like “spathe” wraps around the plant’s true flowers, which appear as tiny little dots alongside a stalk within the spathe. A Jack-in-the-Pulpit can also be identified by its three distinctive leaves, which Giefer said can grow as large as an outstretched human hand.
The plant’s growth pattern is also unique. Giefer said a single “mother plant” seeds new plants. The mother plant can grow to several feet tall, with massive leaves, and it can appear alone or in a gathering of smaller, new plants.
“This one lasts a while,” Giefer said. “We’ll see these flowers in the middle of the spring to the end of spring. It can even last into the beginning of summer.”
Once the flower is pollinated, the spathe droops and the flowers give way to bright red, berry-like clusters—poisonous to humans but loved by birds—that brighten the woods throughout the summer. These berry-like clusters contain the seeds that create new Jack-in-the-Pulpits.
Another wildflower that produces an unusual-looking blossom is Dutchman’s Breeches. “These look like, literally, an upside-down pair of pants,” Giefer said. “These are really fun to find. One stem has multiple flowers hanging down, so it looks like multiple pairs of pants.”
The blossoms are white, and anywhere from five to 10 of them will hang from a single stalk. The plant grows to about 10 to 12 inches tall and has feathery, fernlike leaves growing around a leafless stalk.
Found closer to the ground, Bloodroot flowers are dainty plants that grow only about six inches tall. Each flower emerges on its own stem, wrapped in a single leaf, which unfurls as the flower blooms open.
“It kind of looks like a small sunflower or daisy, with longer white petals around a yellow center,” Giefer said.
Bloodroot gets its name from the blood-red juice that comes from the flower’s stem. These flowers typically appear in early May and are fairly elusive, lasting only for a couple of weeks.
“They’re a really beautiful flower to find, and they’re usually found in clusters so there will be a bunch of them,” Giefer said
These plants get their name from their distinctive brown-mottled leaves, which resemble the pattern of a brown trout. The long, distinctive leaves are easily identifable, but their flowers are also unique. The Trout Lily has a single, dainty flower on top of a short stalk, with the flower pointing toward the ground and the petals curling back in the sunshine.
Two types of Trout Lilies grow naturally in Wisconsin, one with yellow flowers and the other with white. The variety with yellow blooms are more common in northern Wisconsin, and the white flowers are more likely to appear in the state’s southern areas. Trout Lilies are not found in great abundance at Beaver Creek Reserve, but the ones that do appear have yellow flowers.
“This one is really beautiful and it also appears in clusters,” Giefer said.
Other varieties of wildflowers are more exclusive to specific areas. For example, Trilliums are not found at Beaver Creek Reserve, but they’re very common in northern deciduous woodlands. Named for their three rounded petals standing over three distinctive leaves, Trilliums typically bloom in mid-May. They appear all over the country in various forms, but in Wisconsin the most common variety is the Snow Trillium, with its three brilliant white petals.
Virginia Bluebells, on the other hand, are more common in the southern areas of the state. These wildflowers appear early, usually mid April to mid-May, in moist woodlands and river flood plains. The plants have blue, trumpet-shaped flowers that grow in clusters at the ends of the stems.
May Apples are also exclusive to southern Wisconsin. These are canopy-like plants whose leaves slowly unfurl as the stem grows, unfolding as the stem reaches its full height and forming the shape of a partially opened umbrella. The delicate white flowers, which can be hard to spot as they stay tucked beneath the canopy leaves, typically appear in late April to about mid-May.
These varieties are just a sampling of the wildflowers to be found in Wisconsin’s woodlands in the spring. Take a walk through the forests to take in all the flowers—you’ll never feel so grateful for April’s showers.—Mary Erickson
Beaver Creek Reserve is located at S1 County Hwy K, Fall Creek, WI 54742. Workshops and programs are typically held here year-round, including guided phenology walks in the spring, although programs and hours of some facilities are still limited due to COVID-19. However, the walking trails are open. To learn more, visit beavercreekreserve.org or call 715-877-2212.