Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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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

"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.

Flowers 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 woods.

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 limestone ledges.

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 bluebells.

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 tide.

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