There is something magical about hiking into a favorite spot every year and anticipating the first wildflowers of spring. These perennial plants have made it through the winter by storing energy below ground in their roots or rhizomes, ready to break through when the snow has melted. It’s reassuring to go to places I’ve been before, knowing where to look for my favorite species, and finding that yes, once again, here they are; we all made it through the winter.
I start these expeditions in March, seeking the little maroon spathes of skunk cabbage (Symplocarpos foetidus) poking up through the snow in seepage swamps. My favorite place to see them is the Pine Bend Bluffs Scientific and Natural Area in Inver Grove Heights. The path to the seepage swamps is a treat in itself, with impressive views of the river on a high bluff and a steep hike down a bedrock bluff prairie. The seeps occur just above the river and below an oak forest, so I hike along the lower slope of the forest until I spot the plants in areas of cold water originating from the ground. Another great place to see skunk cabbage is the Minnehaha Regional Park in Minneapolis, where they grow next to the boardwalk along the creek.
A very different early spring treat for the botanically inclined is the pasque flower (Anemone patens), a beautiful little plant that grows in dry prairie habitats. I look for them in early April most years. They start as furry little clumps, and open out into light violet petaled flowers with many yellow stamens covering a green columnar center. The River Terrace Prairie Scientific and Natural Area in Cannon Falls is a favorite place to see them – they are abundant there in the dry sand-gravel prairie. This SNA is also a good place to see prairie smoke (Geum triflorum) a little later in the spring – first with its pink flowers and later with its seeds connected to feathery plumes that give them their name.
After these exciting little sips of early spring, the bursts of spring ephemeral wildflowers in late April and May covering the forest floor over acres of mesic hardwood forests can seem a little overwhelming. These plants emerge soon after the snow melts, and have only about 2 months to flower and fruit and produce leaves before they senesce and go into dormancy. This strategy allows the plants to take advantage of the availability of the light, soil and nutrients that are readily available before the trees leaf out. Forests of sugar maple, basswood, and red oak that are relatively undisturbed are good places to search for spring ephemerals. Disturbed forests with high deer populations and lots of invasive plants like garlic mustard generally don’t support many spring ephemerals. Another issue for these flowers is the presence of earthworms in many forests. All earthworms present in Minnesota today are non-native. They consume fallen leaves, eliminating the duff layer that provides necessary nutrients and moisture to plants, and they change the texture of the soil, causing increased runoff and erosion.
Despite the many threats to these plants, there are still many places in the northern and southeast parts of the state with diverse spring ephemeral populations, and some in the western Twin Cities too.
The Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary in Minneapolis, for example, contains more than 500 plant species. Established in 1907 as the first public wildflower garden in the U.S., the sanctuary was named for the retired botany teacher who did much of the planting and caring for the gardens. The gardens include eight of the eleven spring ephemeral plant species in the state, including toothwort (Cardamine concatenata) and yellow trout lily (Erythronium americanum), as well as many other spring-blooming species.
For those who are curious, here are Minnesota’s 11 spring ephemerals (along with their rarity status):
Virginia spring beauty Claytonia virginica
Carolina spring beauty (special concern) Claytonia caroliniana
Dutchman’s breeches Dicentra cucullaria
Squirrel corn (special concern) Dicentra canadensis
False rue anemone Enemion biternatum
White trout lily Erythronium albidum
Dwarf trout lily (endangered) Erythronium propullans
Yellow trout lily Erythronium americanum
Rue anemone Thalictrum thalictroides
Moschatel Adoxa moschatellina
Cutleaf toothwort Cardamine concatenata
Another place I enjoy visiting to see spring ephemerals is Nerstrand Big Woods State Park east of Faribault. It’s a great place to see the endangered dwarf trout lily (Erythronium propullans), which grows naturally nowhere else in the world except Rice, Goodhue, and Steele counties. Nerstrand is a very popular place in the spring, so I sometimes choose less well-known destinations to avoid the crowds. The Cannon River Wilderness Area, a Rice County Park north of Faribault, is a wonderful place for spring ephemerals. The park also contains a remarkable diversity of other habitats to explore, including prairies, floodplain forests, and calcareous fens. Some of the spring ephemerals you’ll see in forested areas in both of these parks are Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), and false rue anemone (Enemion biternatum).
Northern Minnesota also includes many places to view spring wildflowers. One of my favorites is the mesic hardwood forests of Itasca State Park, which include old-growth forests and impressive wildflower displays. Some of the spring-blooming flowers you’ll find there (that are not spring ephemerals because they keep their stems and leaves into the summer) are round-lobed hepatica (Hepatica rotundifolia), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), wild ginger (Asarum canadense), and large-flowered trillium (Trillium grandiflorum). The park offers many more outstanding habitats too, including old-growth pine forests and many kinds of wetlands.
Of course these are just a few of the many public places you can go to enjoy spring wildflowers. The web pages for Scientific and Natural Areas and State Parks provide more ideas for destinations, and sometimes include species lists. For more information about wildflowers of all types, I recommend the Minnesota Wildflowers website and their mobile app.
Wherever you go, enjoy!
Hannah Texler is a recently retired botanist and plant ecologist who has worked for the National Park Service, the Michigan Natural Features Inventory, and the Minnesota DNR. One of the highlights of her time at the DNR was conducting surveys for the Minnesota Biological Survey Program. Says Hannah, “I feel incredibly fortunate to have done this work. Every day in the field was an adventure, but the most rewarding days were those that brought new rare plant population finds, or plant communities full of natural diversity. Knowing that some of these finds would result in permanent protection made it even better.”
A feast for the eyes: the Friends of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden share a glimpse of more spring-blooming flowers to look forward to. Photos by Gary Bebeau.