Woodland Wildflowers in May
Nature Bulletin No. 679-A May 13, 1978
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
WOODLAND WILDFLOWERS IN MAY
"Sweet April showers I o bring May flowers " -- so sang the early
English poet Thomas Tusser. This rule holds as well for our forest
preserves today as it did in his England of four centuries ago.
Wave After wave of wildflowers come into bloom, brighten the
landscape and wane from early spring until the killing frosts of autumn.
The first big surge of blossoms is in the rich moist woodlands. Then
come the delicate early prairie flowers -- for example, birdfoot violet,
pink phlox, wild hyacinth and puccoon. After the trees have leafed out,
a second crop of taller broad-leafed flowers overshadow the early
spring forest bloomers. Thus the parade of color marches past, ending
with broad bands of gold and purple on the prairies in late summer, and
masses of white snakeroot and blue bellflower in the autumn woods.
bloom first in the woodlands because they get an early start.
Under an insulating blanket of fallen leaves and leaf mold forest soils
freeze but little, even in the most severe winters. As the days lengthen
in spring the ground warms beneath the leafless trees and the early
flowering plants push up.
They pop up quickly because, unlike later flowers, they can draw on
food stored the year before in bulbs, tubers, fleshy roots and rootstocks.
These contain starches and sugars which are literally bottled sunshine
for a growing plant. It is characteristic of these abundant flowers of the
spring woods that they bloom, make seed, replenish their underground
stores of plant food, then wither, soon after the trees come into full leaf
and shade them. Most kinds of them complete their entire year's work in
a few short weeks.
The peak of bloom is in the first half of May when they often carpet the
forest floor so completely that it is difficult to walk without trampling
them. Then it is not unusual to count as many as twenty kinds in flower
during an hour's stroll. Such displays can be found in many forest
preserves throughout Cook County. Usually they are best in damp
woodlands away from the picnic areas where fire has never been
allowed to destroy the slowly accumulating leaf mulch.
Many different plant families have entries in this flower show. The lily
family is represented by almost a dozen local species. Perhaps the
earliest and best known of these are the white and the yellow dogtooth
violets -- not violets at all. The great white trillium, among the showiest
of all flowers, and the hanging yellow blossoms of the bellworth, thrill
flower lovers. Later, the Solomon seals are the common lilies of the
The crowfoot family offers buttercups, the hepatica, the meadow rue,
the marsh marigold, and different kinds of anemones or windflowers.
The white cohosh or baneberry -- also called "doll's eyes" -- is found in
deep woods. The flowers of the columbine, most prized of all, has five
long hollow yellow and crimson spurs. It prefers rocky slopes and
The little spring beauty, a purslane, with its five petals veined with pink
blooms from early spring until midsummer. More than any other
woodland flower, it can survive grazing, fire and trampling. The
toothwort and the bitter cress are mustards. The bizarre jack-in-the-
pulpit is a relative of our cultivated calla lily and the bloodroot is a
poppy. Both blue and yellow violets are cousins of the pansy. The
shooting star is a primrose.
Other widespread flowers of the spring woods are dutchman's breeches,
May apple, wood sorrel, wild geranium, blue phlox, Jacob's ladder and
Now is the time to obey that urge to get away from home and school
and job for a bit: the time to get outdoors and rouse our winter-weary
senses with the color, fragrance, texture and music of spring at its high
To return to the Nature Bulletins Click Here!
Update: June 2012