Spring is in bloom in the woodlands

Here's your guide on what you might see on your next hike

|  Story by Meghan McMahon |


The arrival of spring means many things, and among them is the blooming of ephemeral wildflowers.

To be treated to this seasonal show, you’ll need to head to the woods. The woods are where the action is because ephemeral wildflowers are taking advantage of the sunlight hitting the forest floor before trees leaf out, according to the University of Illinois Extension.

Ephemeral wildflowers have to emerge from the forest floor, flower and set their seed quickly, before they lose sunlight when tree canopies fill in. Because of this, their blooms don’t last long.

Our forests are full of these wildflowers, arriving in waves starting as early as February. Because the blooms last only a short time, each trip to the woods in spring can be a new experience as old blooms fade away and new ones add pops of color.

Our spring wildflowers can be identified based on many factors, but the easiest is their flowers. Here is a look at many of the ephemerals that pop up in Will County each spring.

Want to see what’s in bloom this spring through the eyes of an experienced naturalist? The Forest Preserve is hosting a series of Where the Wildflowers Are hikes at different preserves throughout the season. All hikes require registration.

The maroon colored leaves of skunk cabbage on the forest floor.

Skunk cabbage (Photo by Chad Merda)

Skunk cabbage

Skunk cabbage is the true early bird among our local wildflowers, being the earliest flowering plant we see in Illinois. It typically blooms in late February or early March, and a little snow cover won’t stop it. It generates its own heat, allowing it to melt surrounding snow as it pokes up from the leaf litter and other organic matter.

Skunk cabbage doesn’t have flowers like you might expect. The first part of the skunk cabbage to emerge above ground is a maroon-colored hood-like structure called a spathe. With that is the spadix, which is covered with many little blossoms. The hood surrounding the spadix keeps the flowers warm.

Skunk cabbage earned its common name for exactly the reason you probably expect. The plant gives off an undesirable odor when crushed or bruised. The putrid smell serves an important purpose. It attracts flies that pollinate the plant.

The tiny petals of harbinger of spring.

Harbinger of spring (Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Harbinger of spring

You have to have quite an eagle eye to find tiny harbinger of spring blooms popping up from the forest floor. They truly are a harbinger of the season, blooming as early as February in southern Illinois and usually by mid-March elsewhere.

Harbinger of spring is often found growing in clusters, but they can still be hard to spot. They stand only about 5 inches tall, and the little white flowers usually appear before the leaves. The purplish-red anthers can provide a tiny pop of color when they bloom, but they slowly fade to black, giving rise to the nickname salt and pepper plant.

The white petals of bloodroot

Bloodroot (Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)


Bloodroot is another ephemeral that begins to bloom in March and can last through May. Look for bursts of white on the forest floor, and it may be bloodroot that has caught your eye. The white flowers are large by ephemeral standards, reaching as much as 1 ½ inches wide. The plants typically stand between 6 inches and 12 inches tall. Each flower has many petals, and they usually appear in multiples of four.

The “blood” in their name is a reference to the plant’s sap, which is a bright red color. Bloodroot is harder to find on overcast days because the white flowers don’t always unfurl.  

The purple petals of hepatica are seen up close.

Hepatica (Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)


Pops of purple in early spring may very well belong to hepatica on the forest floor. They bloom from March through May in Illinois. Two species of hepatica — sharp-lobed and round-lobed hepatica — are found in the eastern part of the continent, differentiated by the shape of their leaves.

Hepatica produces star-shaped flowers, and the plants can grow to be 12 inches tall. Sharp-lobed hepatica is the more common of the two varieties, but the two species can sometimes grow near each other. In general, sharp-lobed hepatica is found in wet woodlands, while round-lobed hepatica prefers drier forests.

Purple is the most common color for hepatica blooms, and the shade can vary from very light to dark. Blooms can also be pink, blue or white.

The pinkish petals of spring beauties.

Spring beauty (Photo by Chad Merda)

Spring beauty

Pretty pinkish flowers on the forest floor in early spring are likely spring beauties. These delicate looking flowers have white petals with pink streaks or stripes. The shade of pink can vary from light to almost crimson

Spring beauties don’t grow very tall — usually only about 6 inches — but they often grow in large clusters, so they can be a breathtaking sight. Although they are a woodland wildflower, they are sometimes found growing away from our forests in meadows, parks and even yards.

The jagged leaves of cut-leaved toothwort.

Cut-leaved toothwort (Photo by Chad Merda)

Cut-leaved toothwort

Cut-leaved toothwort produces long, slender stems that can grow to be 8 inches to 15 inches tall. The flowers are white or pale pink in color, and they often face downward, dropping from the stems.

Toothwort got its common name because of the tooth-like projections on the plant’s underground stems. Cut-leaved toothwort is further named for the deep cuts on the lobes of its leaves.  Look for it in woodlands and savannas.

The white petals of trout lily.

Trout lily (Photo by Chad Merda)

Trout lilies

Our local trout lilies come in two colors — white and yellow. White trout lily is more common than yellow and both bloom from April through May. The plants grow to be 6 inches to 9 inches tall, and the flowers nod downward with petals facing up to the sky.

Trout lily often grows in large colonies, but not all the plants will produce flowers. It takes about seven years for trout lily plants to bloom for the first time. Until then, the plants can be identified from the mottled green and brown leaves, which are said to look like trout, hence the name.

The green leaves and maroon bloom of prairie trillium.

Prairie trillium (Photo by Anthony Schalk)


Many species of trillium grow in Illinois, but the most common include prairie trillium and great white trillium. The plants are called trillium because each generally has three petals, three sepals and three bracts.

Look for all our local trillium species in rich, moist woodlands, even prairie trillium, which has a misleading name. Great white trillium has white flowers, while prairie trillium produces maroonish blooms.

The white blooms of dutchman's breeches.

Dutchman's breeches (Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Dutchman’s breeches

If you’ve ever seen Dutchman’s breeches, you know how they got their name. The tiny blossoms do, in fact, looks like a Dutchman’s pants hanging upside down from a clothesline. This plant is also sometimes called little blue staggers because it can cause cattle who graze on it to become intoxicated because of a toxic substance in the plant.

Dutchman’s breeches are most often found in rich woodlands. They begin to bloom in mid- to late March and last until May. Blooms are usually white but can be pink in color. The plant generally grows to be between 4 inches and 8 inches tall.  

The pinkish petals of wild geranium.

Wild geranium (Photo by Anthony Schalk)

Wild geranium

By mid-April, a second wave of wildflowers begins to bloom, and this is when we usually start to see wild geranium. It typically blooms from mid-April through May in Illinois. Look for pale pink or purplish blooms with five rounded petals. Wild geranium often grows in large colonies, so look for masses of vegetation about 12 inches to 18 inches high and then look for the colorful blooms.

You can find wild geraniums in just about any forested habitat. You may also find it near streams and creeks and in some fields. And while many spring ephemerals can be planted in home gardens, wild geranium often does well in yards provided it gets at least part shade and has a well-draining soil.

Wild ginger on the forest floor.

Wild ginger (Photo by Chad Merda)

Wild ginger

Most of our spring ephemerals are easiest to identify from their flowers, but wild ginger is one that can be easy to spot from its leaves. Look for plants that have heart-shaped leaves growing in clumps up to 8 inches tall.

The flowers on wild ginger plants grow under the leaves, so you’ll have to get down low to see them. They are maroon in color, and they typically bloom from April into May. Wild ginger flowers grow under the leaves because they evolved with the purpose of attracting small flies that emerge from underground each spring. When they emerge, they are looking for rotting flesh of an animal to feast on. The color and location of the wild ginger blooms helps attract these flies in hopes it will pollinate the plants, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The white blooms of rue anemone.

Rue anemone (Photo by Anthony Schalk)


Anemone is another family of wildflowers, with multiple species found in Illinois. Among the species you may find in the preserves and beyond are rue anemone, false rue anemone and wood anemone. All three species produce white blooms and three-lobed leaves and are typically found in moist woodlands.

There are several differences between rue anemone and false rue anemone, but the most obvious to amateur wildflower enthusiasts may be in how they grow. While false rue anemone often grows in large colonies that blanket the forest floor, rue anemone plants don’t often cluster together and typically have space between them.

The blue blooms of Virginia bluebells hang off the stem.

Virginia bluebells (Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Virginia bluebells

The real showstopper each spring are the Virginia bluebells, which typically begin calling us to the forests in late April and early May as we anxiously await their colorful arrival. In many places, including several Will County preserves, the bluish-purple blooms of Virginia bluebells cover large expanses of the forest floor. The bell-shaped flowers nod downward and often attract early-season insects.

Like most spring ephemerals, they thrive in moist woodlands and floodplains. They can grow up to 2 feet tall but die back not long after the bloom period is over, leaving open spots in the forests where they once shined.

The green, umbrella-like leaves of mayapples.

Mayapple (Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)


Mayapple is another of our spring wildflowers that is more identifiable by its leaves than its flower. The large leaves can be up to 14 inches wide, and they look like umbrellas on the forest floor. Mayapple often grows in large colonies, so these umbrella-like leaves often cover large swathes of the ground.

Like wild ginger, mayapple flowers grow below the leaves, so they aren’t often seen. The white flowers bloom from late March into June. Once the flowers are done blooming, the plants produce the small “apples” for which they are named.

The green and purplish colored leaf of jack-in-the-pulpit.

Jack-in-the-pulpit (Photo via Shutterstock)


Jack-in-the-pulpits emerge from April into May, and once you’ve seen this plant you aren’t likely to forget its name. Its unusual appearance – which looks like a tiny person (jack) delivering a sermon from a pulpit – gives rise to its unusual name. The so-called jack is a spadix covered in teeny, tiny green or purplish flowers. It emerges first, followed by the pulpit, which is the plant’s spathe. The pulpit, or spathe, forms a hood-like structure around the spadix, offering shade and protection from the elements

Like our other spring ephemerals, it grows in the woods, but it is partial to hillsides. In its early years, jack-in-the-pulpit produces only male flowers, but as the plants get older, they produce both male and female flowers, but they do not pollinate themselves. Instead, the female flowers are pollinated by male flowers from a different plant.

A large cluster of blueish Jacob's ladder flowers.

Jacob's ladder (Photo via Shutterstock)

Jacob’s ladder

Another wildflower with an unusual name is Jacob’s ladder, which blooms in Illinois from April through June. The plant is named for the biblical story in which there is a ladder ascending to heaven. The Jacob’s ladder plant leaves look like ladder rungs ascending upward.

Atop its ascending leaves, the plant produces small purple or pale blue flowers. Multiple blooms will appear at the top of each stem. The flowers often droop to one side, making them appear wider than they are.

(Lead image via Shutterstock)

Back to Top