Identify summer wildflowers in Vermont
5 min read / July 1, 2022 / By Liz Thompson
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5 min read / July 1, 2022 / By Liz Thompson
You can find them along roadsides, in wetlands, in the woods, and on mountaintops. From towering Great Angelica lining wet roadsides to tiny mountain cranberry clinging to the very highest peaks…. Let us help you identify summer wildflowers native to Vermont and the northeast.
Driving or walking along any back road, if there are moist swales, meadows, or even ditches, you’ll see an abundance of native wildflowers, along with a few non-natives. Some of these are huge and conspicuous, some small and delicate, but all ask for a closer look.
Photo: Canada lily and tall meadow rue in forest
Tall meadow rue is a striking summer wildflower. Also known as muskrat-weed or king-of-the-meadow, it can grow up to six feet tall, sometimes more.
From a distance, the large white clusters of flowers at the top of each plant look almost like puffs of fresh snow falling from a tree overhead. In fact, tall meadow rue often does grow under trees, but not in dense shade.
A moist woodland or wetland edge, or a slightly wet roadside, is a good place to find this plant. Once you’ve found it, look more closely. You’ll find that there are two or three kinds of plants.
Some, like the top photo, have all or mostly male flowers, with delicate white stamens topped by yellow, pollen-filled anthers.
Other plants have strictly female flowers, each flower having only pistils, which will mature into small, dry fruits. Finally, some flowers, as in the bottom image, have both male and female parts.
If you see a very tall wildflower that has balls of firework-like flowers it just might be Great Angelica. The flowers tend to appear in late June or early July, just as Independence Day is approaching.
This is one of many members of the parsley family flowering in mid-summer. Plants in this family have either flat-topped or rounded groups of flowers that look something like umbrellas.
Angelica is unusual in having completely rounded flower clusters, making it identifiable from a distance.
Its height—six feet or more—also causes Great Angelica to be a standout on the edges of wetlands.
The parsley family includes some members that are edible, like carrot, dill, and parsley itself. It also includes some that are poisonous to eat or to touch, like poison hemlock, the plant that killed Socrates, or poison parsnip, an invasive, yellow-topped flower that can cause a severe skin rash.
Angelica is fragrant and edible, and has been used widely as a flavoring, in medicine, and in ceremonial use, as a purification herb. Look closely at the giant flower clusters, you’ll see that each large ball is a ball of smaller balls!
Cow parsnip is another large member of the parsley family, growing up to ten feet tall!
It flowers at the same time as great angelica but is easily distinguished by its white flat-topped flower clusters that are the size of a dinner plate, up to twelve inches wide. Cow parsnip is found in open wetlands and wet edges across North America, and it is a commonly seen Vermont wildflower growing along slightly wet and shady roadsides, especially in northern regions.
Both edible and toxic, cow parsnip is a plant to be treated with caution.
The tender, young, peeled stems are edible, hence the alternative name Indian celery, but the leaves can cause dermatitis. And ironically, the plant has been used to treat skin ailments.
Another reason for caution: a look-alike non-native plant, giant hogweed, is extremely toxic when touched; its sap can cause blindness. Giant hogweed is much larger overall, and its stem has telltale red splotches (notice that the stem of cow parsnip pictured here is entirely green). Fortunately, this plant is, at least for now, quite uncommon in Vermont.
Photo: Cow parsnip stem detail
Canada lily, or meadow lily, is one of only two native lilies in Vermont, but its flower form is familiar to anyone who enjoys gardens or flower arrangements.
Canada lily is taller than any garden lily you’ll see (up to eight feet!) and grows in open fields and woods throughout eastern North America. In Vermont, it is typically seen in floodplains, either in fields that flood each year or in the partial shade of floodplain forests.
Like all lilies, Canada lilies have six petal-like parts that curl backward when the flower is fully open, inviting pollinators, most commonly ruby-throated hummingbirds, to visit and feed.
Flowers can be yellow, orange, or almost red.
Everywhere you look you will find wildflowers. Walk in a meadow that hasn’t yet been mowed, or in a field that is left to grow wild and you will see them.
Stand still for a while if you can, and notice what insects visit the wildflowers. You’ll be rewarded with a wide variety of butterflies, bees, beetles, and flies, all there for the same reason: a nutritious meal. In the process of feeding on nectar and pollen, these insects move the pollen from flower to flower, making fertilization happen.
Photo: common milkweed
It’s hard to say enough about common milkweed.
Its fascinating little flowers, arranged in pink billowy balls, are complex pollination machines that invite a closer look. The petals are turned back and are topped by a corona or crown (the part you see here) with pink appendages that look like petals and tiny horns pointing inward.
These flowers are carefully constructed to attract pollinators and make sure that the pollen gets transported to another flower. A butterfly or bee will land on the flower, looking for the nectar in the base of the hood-like appendage, and get its feet stuck inside. When it pulls out, sacs of pollen are attached, and they are then moved to the next flower.
Many kinds of butterflies can be seen visiting milkweeds, but monarch butterflies rely strictly on milkweeds to complete their life cycle.
They lay eggs on the young plants, and the caterpillars (pictured) develop there and feed on the leaves as they mature to the pupa stage and finally to flying adults, which then make the long journey to their wintering grounds in Mexico.
Young milkweed shoots, when boiled and drained, are edible, but the plant can also be poisonous if not used carefully. The milky sap has been used to treat warts and other conditions.
During World War II, millions of pounds of the silk from the pods was collected by children to use as filling for military life jackets.
The scientific name of dogbane, Apocynum, means “away from dog,” because the plant is poisonous to dogs, other animals, and humans. A chemical that interacts with the heart muscle can cause severe illness and even death.
Like its relative, milkweed, it has a bitter, milky sap, so your pooch will probably leave it alone.
Another similarity to milkweeds are pods (look for long, narrow pods in this photo). When they open in the fall they have silky seeds, just like milkweed.
Spreading dogbanes have delicate and fragrant pink flowers. Their stripes help insects to find their way inside to the sweet nectar. Moths and butterflies, like this red admiral (pictured), are the most common pollinators.
The stems of dogbanes—this and other species—have tough, long fibers in the outer layers of the stem. The fibers have long been used to make rope, or cordage, and it is amazingly strong.
Many of the flowers that grow along our busiest roads are non-native plants, and some of these plants can have aggressive, weedy tendencies.
Evening primrose is a roadside plant, growing in the most inhospitable-seeming places at times, like cracks in an abandoned parking lot. But this is a native plant, perhaps seemingly weedy, but it rarely becomes truly invasive. In the wild it grows on shores and in other naturally open places, throughout eastern North America.
The lovely pink primrose moth depends on this plant, laying its eggs on the flower buds, where the larvae develop and mature. Often an adult moth will be found with its head buried in the flower, as in this photo.
Opening widest in the evening (hence the name), the flowers attract night-flying insects like the primrose moth and other moths, which pollinate the flowers.
Evening primroses are not true primroses at all, but are related to fireweed, willow-herbs, and enchanter’s nightshade. Four, or sometimes two, petals are the norm in the family.
A fascinating native plant, staghorn sumac is closely related to poison ivy and poison sumac, plants we love to hate.
And with its spreading tendencies, not everyone loves staghorn sumac. But take a closer look, and you’ll be entranced.
Every group of plants is really a single plant, or clone, connected underground by creeping stems. You’ve seen the dome-like structure of some of these groups—the middle stems are the oldest, and the shorter ones on the outside are the youngest.
Their fruits are attractive to all kinds of birds and provide a nutritious source of food well into the fall.
The plants have single-sex flowers on separate plants, and each clone, or group, is either male or female.
Big yellow puffy cones appearing in late June contain the male and the female flowers. These flowers appear on denser greenish cones that become bright red and more conspicuous as they mature in July and August.
Don’t worry about confusing it with poison sumac—that is an uncommon plant of swamps, with whitish flower clusters. But do worry if you are allergic to cashews, because staghorn sumac is related to those.
Vermont’s highest mountains are treasure troves of summer wildflowers.
The cold temperatures and abundant moisture, often in the form of fog, provide an ideal habitat for mosses and other plants that thrive in wet conditions.
On the summit ridge of Mount Mansfield, the highest mountain in Vermont, nestled within the alpine meadow, are tiny alpine peatlands—a very rare natural community in Vermont. These little bogs harbor some unusual alpine plants, as well as a number of plants that can also be found in lowland bogs.
Four of the five plants we feature here are members of the heath, or blueberry family.
As its common name suggests, Labrador tea is a boreal plant, ranging across North America from Greenland, Newfoundland, and Labrador west to Alaska, and south into the northern United States.
Bogs are its most common habitat, whether low or high in elevation.
The name also suggests a hot beverage, and indeed the leaves can be used to make a fragrant tea. The plant is also used medicinally. Like with most medicinal plants, care should be taken in its use—small amounts for a tea are fine, but large amounts could be toxic.
Also, take care to identify the plant correctly—there are poisonous look-alikes such as sheep laurel or lambkill.
The undersides of the new leaves are covered with a dense white fuzz, which turns a cinnamon color in age. This is a great way to distinguish the plant from its poisonous relatives.
Balls of white flowers look a bit fuzzy from a distance, too, because of the long white stamens: five, six, or seven in each flower. Count them in the closeup if you can.
European settlers in the Plymouth Colony—the pilgrims—were introduced to cranberries and their many uses by the indigenous people of the area. As the story goes, when the pilgrims first saw cranberry flowers, they thought of cranes with their long beaks, so they named the flower crane berry, which over time was shortened to cranberry.
The crane’s bill is a tight column of stamens, around the female part of the flower, that loosens after the pollen is shed and the flower fertilized. The cranberry of commerce is a different species, the large cranberry, but both are equally edible and tasty.
The tiny leaves are evergreen, which is true of many members of the heath family. This allows them to start photosynthesizing as soon in the spring as they can see the light, well before the plant would be able to make new leaves.
Small cranberry is common in many bogs and fens in lowland Vermont, as well as in the alpine peatlands of Vermont’s higher peaks.
Mountain cranberry is one of many boreal plants that is distributed across the northern hemisphere. In Europe, it is known as lingonberry, and is used to make sought-after, delicious jams.
Like its relative, the small cranberry, it has four petals, unusual in the heath family and even unusual in the smaller group to which it belongs. This smaller group (the genus Vaccinium) includes blueberries, which have five petals.
Aside from its four petals, this flower looks more like a blueberry than a cranberry flower, with its rounded bell shape and lack of a crane’s bill.
In Vermont, mountain cranberry is rare, growing only on our highest mountains and in boreal woodlands in the Northeast Kingdom.
Alpine bilberry, also called bog bilberry, whimbleberry, or whortleberry, is a Vaccinium of the blueberry type, with five petals joined in an urn-like bell.
The blue berries are sweet and edible, and are used to make jams, pies, and liqueurs. In Iceland they are eaten fresh with skyr, a yogurt-like dairy product.
Bilberries are rarely cultivated, as they are hard to grow, and the berries are soft and fragile. But they are commonly harvested in the wild throughout northern Europe and in much of North America.
In Vermont, bilberries are quite rare, found only in the alpine meadow communities on the highest mountaintops. This photo was taken on Mount Mansfield in late June. In late July, keep your eye out for the berries!
On a recent hike on Mount Mansfield, two different passers-by exclaimed “Truffula trees!” when they saw white puffs of cotton grass in the alpine peatland. Perhaps Dr. Suess had been to a bog and been inspired by these cotton grass tops.
The puff on top of the cotton grass stalk is a collection of mature fruits, small, hard, seed-like structures with long, white hairs that help the seeds fly off into the breeze. There are several kinds of cotton grass in Vermont, and this one is distinct in having just a single white ball. Cotton grasses are not grasses at all, but are members of the sedge family.
“Hare’s tail” refers to that white ball—it reminded someone of a rabbit’s tail. This species of cotton grass grows commonly in acidic bogs in the northern and mountainous parts of Vermont, and well into Canada, where bogs are abundant.