Spring Wildflowers

Here in Wisconsin, witnessing the wane of winter is a delight to all who crave warmer days and longer daylight. No sign of spring goes unnoticed nor uncelebrated. And even if Garrison Keillor contends, “Winter is God’s compliment to us. It says: I know you can handle this,” we sure are glad when it’s over.

One of many celebrated signs of spring are the ephemeral wildflowers that color the floors of Wisconsin woodlands. With a perfect balance of temperature, light, moisture, nutrients and a few underground tactics, these short-lived blooms bring relief to the bleak late-winter landscape. Ephemeral, when used to describe perennial woodland wildflowers, means a plant which develops stems and leaves, quickly blooms, creates seeds and dies back to only its underground parts for the remainder of the year. This growth and bloom cycle takes advantage of a window of time when temperatures heighten, but leaves on overhead trees have not filled out to shade the forest floor. It’s a time when neighboring trees are not yet tapping great amounts of moisture from the soil, and nutrient levels are high thanks to last year’s now-decomposed leaves. As the season progresses and these conditions change, the window of opportunity closes and spring ephemerals slip into a dormant stage, relying on underground rhizomes and bulbs to store energy for next years brief emergence.
Because May temperatures can still dip and, (yikes) a snow storm is still a possibility, these delicate wildflowers come prepared. All are low-growing, staying inches above the ground where the warming land tempers the cold and winds are kept at bay. Plus, many, like the Pasque flower and Wild ginger, don a fuzzy coat to help fight the cold; and some, like Mayapples, keep blooms sheltered beneath their own foliage.

Learn about specific species by taking a virtual wildflower walk with Wisconsin DNR’s EEK Wildflower Walk or, check out “What’s blooming in May” from Minnesota Wildflowers or this beautiful collection from the New England Photography Guild.

To Do This Month:

Celebrate National Wildflower Week now through May 8th.

Plant your own Wildflower garden with planning help from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center which helps you find the perfect plant with a searchable database that’s delimited by location, bloom time, sun exposure, and even color.

Take a tip from either Wisconsin Trails or Travel Wisconsin on where to go to get the most bloom for your buck.

Head to any Nature Net member site to see the blooms – of special note is the “Sprung” exhibit at UW Arboretum which showcases outdoor public sculptures created by UW Madison art department students, now through May 13th. Also at the Arboretum, join a guided evening tour to see and smell blooming Lilacs (May 11th) and Crabapples (May 18th).

Our Fav Wildflower Books

May Events

UW Arboretum

Seed Bomb Craft

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For Educators:

Greening School Grounds

Want to enjoy more wildflowers on your own school grounds? The creative folks at Green Teacher Magazine have e-published a book to help with just that. “Greening School Grounds” provides information on not only how to dig, plant, and landscape, but also on how to develop a rationale that will “win the support of principals and administrators.” The book showcases research that demonstrates that greening school grounds offers intellectual, emotional, and social benefits to children and then provides ideas on how to make use of the outdoor space in multifaceted, educational ways. Find tips on creating a collective vision for your space, garnering funders and volunteers, building your green space (be it a butterfly garden or tree nursery), and finally enjoying it. Introductory authors Tim Grant and Gail Littlejohn contend, “no matter how modestly you begin, you will be enriching young people’s lives, strengthening your community, and adding your vision and voice to the most vibrant educational movement currently underway on this continent.”

You can find more Green Teacher publications, including “Teaching About Invasive Species” and “Teaching About Climate Change” on the Books from Green Teacher page – or sign up for a monthly print or digital magazine subscription to keep inspiration and resources arriving in your in-box.

TNC_Download free from TNC website_with book cover_0Also, check out this free gardening book published by Nature Net member site, Community GroundWorks’ staffer, Nathan Larson: “Teaching in Nature’s Classroom: Core Principles of Garden-Based Education.”

For Families:

Learning Wildflowers

While strolling Wisconsin’s woods, some naturalist use similes to help remember the common names of these brief-lived spring blooms. Here are a few Nature Net staff favorite similes and fun facts:

bluebellVirginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica), true to their name, look like bells hung from a leafy stalk. Although you may see bumble bees visiting bluebells, butterflies are a more common pollinator as bumble bees have hard time reaching into the funnel of the bell for nectar.


jackinthepulpitJack in the Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) looks like the old church pulpits designed to project sound. And there, in the middle, under the leafy hood, stands “Jack” (also known as the spadix) which is the actual flower.


mayappleMayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) has a small bud hidden beneath the two umbrella-like leaves which resembles a small, green apple. This bud generally blooms in early to mid-May, hence the name Mayapple. Though it bears the name of a much-adored fruit, it is not edible.


trillium2Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum), with a prefix of “tri,” has three petals, three sepals, and three leaves. Trillium take 7-10 years to reach maturity and begin flowering. The seeds require a “double dormancy” (two winters at rest before germinating).

Other Wisconsin blooms to look for this time of year:

  • Bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora)
  • Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis )
  • Dogtooth Violet (Erythronium dens-canis)
  • Wood Violet (Viola sororia)
  • Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)
  • Pasque Flower (Pulsatilla patens)
  • Rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides)
  • Shootingstar (Dodecatheon pulchellum)
  • Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)
  • Toothwort (Dentaria diphylla)
  • Trout lily (Erythronium americanum)