Identify Vermont wildflowers in spring
7 min read / April 8, 2022 / By Liz Thompson
7 min read / April 8, 2022 / By Liz Thompson
The snow is gone, the taps are pulled, and trees are budding. Step into the woods, or walk the roadsides, and you might be rewarded with a delicate riot of color unfurling from a drab forest floor, roadside, or woods edge. Let us take you through different landscapes and the Vermont wildflowers you might find in spring.
Northern Hardwood Forests are almost everywhere in Vermont. Sugar maple, beech, and yellow birch are common these woods, and the forest floor is sunny in the early spring, before leaf-out. This is when Vermont wildflowers do a lot of their work, blooming, setting seed, and making food through photosynthesis.
Trout lily, spring beauty, and red trillium are common plants in Northern Hardwood Forests. Ledges and cliffs in these woods, especially if they are a bit sunny, can harbor the striking wild columbine (shown in photo).
The petals of bishop’s cap, or two-leaved miterwort, are among nature’s most delicate, at least in the Vermont woods! Each of the five petals is split into fine threads arranged as on a short white feather, giving the flower a snowflake-like appearance.
As the bishop’s cap flower and its fruits mature, the delicate petals drop off and the cup of the flower, reaching skyward now, holds several tiny, shiny, black seeds. The cup looks to some like a bishop’s cap, or mitre, turned upside down.
Other names for this plant include snowflake, fringe cup, fairy cup, crystal flower, and coolwort. Cool, indeed!
A wild geranium, Herb Robert produces abundant delicate pink flowers in the spring but also in the summer and well into the fall. Like many wildflowers, the flowers, with their clear lines, are designed to invite insects in.
Herb Robert is a native plant throughout much of Europe, and here in eastern North America. In Vermont, it thrives in rocky woods or on cliffs and ledges. In western North America, though, it is an invasive weed.
No one knows who Robert was, but he may have been a medieval herbalist, or Robin Hood himself.
The hairy leaves have a distinctive, unpleasant fragrance, giving the plant one of its names, “Stinking Bob.” Its foul odor, likened to burning tires, makes the crushed leaves a good mosquito repellent, and also makes the plant a good choice for keeping deer and rabbits out of your garden.
“Columba” means “dove,” and these flowers do seem to be flying like doves.
The scientific name, Aquilegia, means “eagle” referring to the spurs that look like an eagle’s claw.
But these spring wildflowers are inviting a much tinier bird. Ruby-throated hummingbirds—and also butterflies—visit columbine flowers to sip nectar from the long spurs, and when they do, they pick up pollen that they then bring to the next flower. So begins the fertilization process.
Later, the five-parted seedpods will contain many tiny seeds, ready to colonize another rocky spot and make new plants.
Your hummingbird feeder at home has a lot in common with wild columbine—it is probably red, and it contains a sweet liquid. Try planting some wild columbine, too. It’s not hard to grow, particularly in shady spots. Don’t gather it from the wild, though. Buy seeds or established plants from a reputable nursery.
Red trillium, or wake robin, is one of four species of trillium in Vermont. They are easily distinguished from white trillium, which has large pure white flowers, painted trillium, which has white flowers with red streaks, and the rare nodding trillium with its cream-colored flowers.
“Nosebleed” is one of the common names for this plant, not because of the bloody color of the flower but because the plant has astringent qualities and can be used to stop a nosebleed.
Another name is “Stinking Benjamin,” referring to the surprising foul odor of the plants, a strategy to attract carrion flies, and other flies and beetles, which pollinate the flowers.
Despite the foul odor, or perhaps because of it, deer love to eat these wildflowers, and can decimate an entire patch overnight.
Did you know that under ideal conditions, it can take a single Trillium seven to eight years to produce a flower? If conditions aren’t good, it could take more than 10 years!
Spring beauties are among the earliest Vermont wildflowers on the forest floor, and also, delightfully, among the most abundant in many broadleaf woodlands.
They are related to purslane, and their succulent leaves, as well as the underground corms, are edible.
Spring beauties, with their striking pink landing pattern lines, are designed to say “Come on in!”
The message is heard loud and clear by insect visitors who will come in to find sweet nectar and pollen, and will then move that pollen to another flower, beginning the process of fertilization.
The trout lily is named for mottled leaves that resemble speckled trout. In springtime, it’s often the first sign of green in hardwood forests throughout eastern North America. The showy yellow lily-like flowers have pollen-producing stamens that can be either yellow or red-brown (perhaps of interest to different insects). Bees pollinate the trout lilies; there is even a bee—the trout-lily Andrea bee—that favors trout lily!
(Photo by Bryan Pfeiffer)
In mid-June or so, when the leaves of trout lily are gone, you might see, where a leaf once was, one or more delicate, almost translucent, stems commonly called “droppers.” Near the end of each dropper is a swelling which, with the help of the dropper, is pushed downward into the soil. Next season, it will produce a new tiny leaf. Later, that new leaf will produce another dropper. The process continues, and the patch of trout lilies expands.
(Photo by Chris Rimmer)
Hundreds of trout lilies can result from a single beginning seed. All these little plants are genetically the same organism, and this group of related plants, this clone, can persist for decades or even centuries.
Dry Oak-Maple Limestone Forests, most common in the Champlain Valley of Vermont, have shallow soils over limestone bedrock.
The fertile soils support a diverse array of wildflowers in spring , including hepatica, large-flowered bellwort, white trillium (shown in photo), blue cohosh, and early meadow rue.
Rich Northern Hardwood Forests, with deeper, loamy soils, are also influenced by limestone bedrock, and support many of the same wildflowers, sometimes in lush abundance.
Hepatica is one of the earliest Vermont wildflowers to appear on the forest floor. If the weather is favorable—it has to be a sunny day for the flowers to open—hepatica can be found as early as the first week of April. Closing the flowers on cloudy days helps the plants to save energy, and hairs on the buds protect them from the cold temperatures of early spring.
Hepatica flowers can be found in colors ranging from pure white through pink to dark porcelain blue. Many scientists have worked to unravel the “why” of these color differences, and they have found no clues in pollinator preference or soil conditions. Instead, it seems to be genetic, like hair color in humans. There are regional differences in flower color, but the full variation can also be found within a few yards in a single patch of woods.
Black cohosh and blue cohosh are unrelated plants, one in the buttercup family and the other in the barberry family. Both have the name cohosh, likely derived from the Eastern Abenaki word kkwa’has, meaning “rough.”
Both plants have medicinal qualities, and are used to treat conditions of the female reproductive system. Other common names are “squawroot” and “papoose root.” Black cohosh does not grow in the wild in Vermont.
There are two species of blue cohosh in the northeast, one with yellowish flowers and the other with dark purple flowers. Both species emerge from the ground in early spring with almost black stems and foliage that turn bluish and then eventually green.
The parts that look like flower petals are actually sepals, and the petals have been modified into nectar glands that attract pollinating bees and flies.
In spring, look for these Vermont wildflowers in rich, loamy soils under hardwoods.
Early meadow rue’s scientific name is Thalictrum dioicum. “Oikos” is the Greek word for “house,” so “dioecious” means two houses. The word “ecology,” the study of our home, the earth, also derives from the Greek word.
In flowering, the two houses are male and female. On male plants of early meadow rue, pollen-bearing stamens dangle gracefully and flutter in the wind. The pollen is carried through the air on spring breezes to the female plants, where sticky receptive stigmas catch the pollen and allow it to fertilize the tiny eggs.
(Shown here: female early meadow rue)
The two-house system is uncommon in forest-floor dwelling spring wildflowers—most have flowers that have both male and female parts, and visiting insects, rather than wind, insure cross-pollination.
But grasses, sedges, and many trees have separate male and female flowers, and rely on the wind for pollination.
(Shown here: male early meadow rue)
White trillium covers the forest floor in early May, and we are glad that flowers have replaced the winter’s snow! One of four native trilliums in Vermont, this showy species is restricted to the western part of the state.
Large-flowered trillium is another name for this handsome plant, and indeed, its flowers are larger than those of any of the other three species.
Trilliums are found across the world in the northern hemisphere. Like many of the flowers in our woods, they can live a long time, and it may take as long as seven or eight years for a plant to become mature enough to produce flowers and fruits.
Pure white when new and fresh, the white trillium’s large flowers fade to pink as they age. Knowing this can help with identification!
Dutchman’s breeches, named for what seem to be pantaloons hanging on a wash line, appear in lush profusion on the forest floor in April, yet there is no evidence of them above ground by late June.
They are completely underground by then, in the form of delicate, pink bulblets. These bulblets are dormant through the summer, but they get very busy in the fall, converting starch to sugar and creating the flower and leaf buds that will be ready to open as soon as the ground warms up in spring.
Squirrel corn is a closely related to Dutchman’s breeches. Look close: its flowers have rounded, rather than pointed, lobes. And the plant has a yellow, corn-like underground bulblet.
The leaves of the two plants are nearly indistinguishable!
Even a casual walk along a Vermont country road or woods edge can reward you with abundant spring wildflowers. Some of them are also found in the deeper woods, while others thrive best on sunny roadsides.
Keep your eye out, from early April through May, for coltsfoot, bloodroot (pictured), shadbush, golden alexanders, and other gems.
Coltsfoot is one of the first wildflowers many of us notice in early spring, sometimes even in late March. Native to Europe and Asia, it is found here mainly on unstable riverbanks and roadsides, where the gravelly substrate seems to be ideal.
The dandelion-like flower—actually dozens of tiny flowers crowded together—seems to attract all kinds of early-flying insects, from bees to beetles to flies.
The plants spread not only by seeds, but also by rhizomes, and they are often found in large colonies, brightening up the edges of roads in the depths of our mud-season.
Bloodroot, so named for the reddish sap that exudes from its roots if they are broken, is one of the earliest Vermont wildflowers. It grows in limy woods, but also occasionally on roadsides and open banks.
The veiny leaves cover the buds in early spring, protecting them from the cold nighttime temperatures and late-season snows.
The leaves broaden out and remain green for the whole growing season, making and storing food in those bloody roots for the following year.
Once the flowers emerge, they display bright yellow stamens that give insects a visual cue to dive in. But the insects are tricked—there is no nectar reward in these flowers, as there is in many other showy spring wildflowers.
Still, the yellow pollen is moved from flower to flower, and fertilization happens, and seeds are produced.
Bloodroot can be cultivated and grown in your garden, and horticulturists have developed showy varieties. Please do not dig plants from the wild!
Shadbush is a shrub/small tree of many names.
Shadbush or shadblow refer to the plant’s flowering time, when the shad (fish) are running.
Serviceberry, according to the story, refers to the fact that funeral services at one time had to wait until spring, when the ground was thawed.
And, juneberry tells us the month this lovely small tree fruits — and yes, those fruits are edible and tasty. But be quick; the birds will likely beat you to it!
Vermont has many kinds of native shadbush—eight species and a number of subspecies and hybrids, and they grow in all kinds of habitats from mountaintops to woods and edges.
Blooming in April and May, they grace the woods of northern New England as dogwood graces the woods to our south.
Golden alexanders, flowering in May, can be found in fields, in wetlands, and along roadsides. These lovely native plants don’t grow much more than a foot tall, in comparison to the later-flowering and non-native, invasive wild parsnip, which can grow as tall as a person.
These are members of the parsley family, whose members have tiny flowers gathered into flat-topped umbels, or groups that look a bit like umbrellas.
Many members of this family, like carrots, parsley, and celery, are edible, but some, like the so-called hemlock that killed Socrates, are deadly poisonous.
Golden alexanders are edible, but because of their resemblance to the toxic wild parsnip, stay away from them unless you are 100% sure!
The common name is thought to refer to an edible herb of the old world, first found near Alexandria, Egypt.
Many kinds of insects visit these golden flowers, and there is one bee, the golden alexanders mining bee, that absolutely relies on them. This is also an important host plant for black swallowtail butterflies.