Walk With Me: Native Spring Wildflowers

Photo of Springwater Forest with bare trees and leaves on the ground with green plants springing up Let’s take a walk through some of southwestern Ontario’s woodlands and see what we can find! 

In April or May, you may notice many beautiful wildflowers on the forest floor: Trilliums, Bloodroot, and Trout Lily to name a few. Along with the spring bird migration and temperate weather, the wildflower display is a highlight of spring hiking.  

The spectacular display sometimes seems like it’s over in just a few weeks as the forest floor is often dominated by short-lived species that die back completely to the ground by mid-June. Plants with this life-cycle (phenology) are called ephemerals.  

Photo Above: Springwater Forest - Elgin County (photo) 

Classic ephemeral plants native to Ontario include Trout Lilies (Erythronium sp.,) readily identified by their variegated (multicolored) green and burgundy oval-shaped leaves. This flower can be yellow (in Erythronium americanum) or white (in Erythronium albidum). Keep a lookout for these blooms on your next hike! 

Close up photo of a Yellow Trout Lily flowerClose up photo of a pink Eastern Spring Beauty flowerClose up photo of a purple Cut-leaved Cardamine flower

Photos left to right: Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum; Springwater Forest), Eastern Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica; Springwater Forest), Cut-leaved Cardamine (Cardamine concatenata; Rondeau Provincial Park).

Two other spring ephemerals that you will likely encounter on an April hike are Spring Beauties and Bittercresses. Spring Beauty (Claytonia sp.) is a very common ephemeral wildflower in Ontario with very small, elliptical (very narrow) leaves and a few pink flowers per plant. En masse, they can even make the forest floor appear slightly pink! Sometimes Spring Beauties are confused with Bittercress (Cardamine sp.), another native ephemeral wildflower. Both of these species grow in similar habitats - moist upland forests. Spring Beauties can be distinguished from Bittercresses by their leaf shape - the latter usually has lobed leaves; as seen in cut-leaved bittercress and two-leaved toothwort. Next time you’re walking through their preferred habitat, see if you can spot the differences between the two. 

Bloodroots (Sanguinaria canadensis) and Trilliums (Trillium sp) are arguably the showiest of the Ontario wildflowers. Bloodroots emerge with large white flowers, usually with six to eleven petals. Trilliums also appear impressive with their three red or white petals. Both of these plants are shade-tolerant and not ephemeral: meaning the foliage will remain alive and visible until autumn. For these attributes, Bloodroots and Trilliums would make ideal groundcovers for woodland gardens. 

 Close up photo of a Red Trillium flower Close up photo of a white and yellow Bloodroot flowerClose up photo of a purple Hepatica flower

Left to right: Red Trillium (Trillium erectum), Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Hepatica (Hepticaa sp). All photos from Springwater Forest.

Some of our native wildflowers are evergreen, meaning they never completely lose their leaves, even in winter. An example of this is Hepatica, one of the earliest blooming wildflowers native to Ontario. These flowers appear in dense clusters of purple, blue, or white.

While mid-May sees the fading of the Trilliums, one can look forward to wild Geraniums (Geranium maculatum) with their purple, typically five-petalled flowers, populating upland forests and woodland savannas. They often appear in abundance given suitable habitat. Another late-May wildflower is Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), a favorite of hummingbirds. Both appear around the same time.

 Photo of purple Wild Geranium on the side of a forest path with a benchClose up photo of a pink Bleeding-heart flowerLeft to Right: Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) dominates the ground-layer of this Oak Woodland-Savanna in late May; Red Columbine. All photos are from Pinery Provincial Park.

One of my personal favorites is Dutchman's Breeches, or Bleeding-heart (Dicentra cucullaria). The display of this ephemeral plant is often exceptional in late April. The flowers are heart-shaped and white, appearing in clusters around a central stalk. Leaves are dissected making them very distinctive. 



Photo of a cluster of white Dicentra flowers with trees in the background

Photo left: Dicentra cucullaria dominates the ground-layer of a Black Maple forest. Like Trout Lilies and Spring-Beauty, this is a short-blooming ephemeral plant. Fish Point - Pelee Island

This is only a short selection of the many species of spring wildflowers in Ontario. Later this spring, I’m looking forward to the arrival of the summer breeding birds; hiking through green forests, rich in vegetation; and the return of the warm weather.

Take some time to go for your own walk through nature and reflect on what you are looking forward to seeing during this season of renewal.

Written by Matthew Palarchio