There are many bonuses to hiking. Learning to recognize wild flowers is one of them. I have started a list of some of these common Trail Treasures along with a brief comment about each wild flower. To learn to recognize these flowers start by using the links provided. The links will take you to other websites where there are pictures and other information. Then hike and see them in nature. Enjoy!
Of all of the pleasures that await us along the Bruce Trail few are as joyfully welcomed as the spring flowers. After an absence of flowers from the fall, through winter and early spring the first glimpses of these tiny, fragile treasures are eagerly awaited.
Spring wildflowers have a tough job. They have to be ready for those first sunny warm days of early April. Their time is short to send up their leaves, flower, be pollinated, set fruit and to store up energy in their roots for next year. This all has to happen within a period of less than three months. Once the leaves are on the trees and the sunlight stops hitting the forest floor, the flowers fade away. While this cycle is underway they will hopefully avoid being browsed by a hungry deer. If the leaves are eaten by deer for one or two years the plant will die. Last May while at the Delaware Water Gap in New Jersey, a natural area on the Delaware River, I found very few wild flowers but lots of deer. There are certainly deer in Southern Ontario however at this time they are not the major concern that they are in the northern U.S. states. Some areas on the north shore of Lake Erie such as Rondeau and Point Pelee do have a problem with deer.
- Spring wildflowers are most numerous and colourful in our woodlands. In early spring, the woodland burgeons with life as patches of colour push up through the dead leaves. The flowers of early spring are called ephemerals ("short-lived"). The word refers to the blossoms of spring wildflowers, which begin to fall almost as soon as they bloom. Ephemerals, such as bloodroot, hepatica, trillium, trout lily, and Dutchman’s breeches, bloom before the big trees form canopies that shade the woodland floor. They are the first, racing against the trees, to bloom, to become pollinated, and to make seeds before the tree leaves block the sunlight. Seeing spring wildflowers along the trails and learning their names is a way to enjoy them.
As hikers we have to be ready to get out there. April and May, the prime months can go by pretty quickly and if we miss our opportunity to see these spring flowers we have to wait another year. Living in Waterloo makes it a little easier for me to get out into the wooded areas and over the years I have found a few places, usually hillsides facing south where I know I can get my “fix”. The organized hikes are in many cases not the best way to view spring flowers, unless the hike is advertised as such. When it comes to looking at and taking pictures of wild flowers I like to take my time, which does not always suit fellow hikers. Learn a few places that you can get to easily and frequent them often in April and May as the flowers come along at different times.
I have created a list of the more common wildflowers that we might see along the Bruce Trail in the spring, with a brief description and a comment or two. For many there is a hyper link to a picture and more information. Learning about our natural environment, I believe, enhances our outdoor experience.
As we become more aware of our environment the feeling that it needs our protection grows.
A good field guide in invaluable, two that are well thought of are “Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide” and “Recognizing Flowering Wild Plants”.
There will be some flowers that I have missed and if you think they should be included in updates to this please contact me. Very roughly the flowers are in the order that I would expect to find them flowering.
... Greg Vincent
Small pink or white flower with darker pink veins. One of the earliest, I have found these next to trees, where they pick up a little extra warmth as early as 24th of March. Spring has arrived!
Pictures - One | Two | Three
HEPATICAS, ROUND-LOBED & SHARP-LOBED
Blue, pink or white flowers. What gives this plant away every time is the shape of the leaf, three deep lobes. These leaves stay through the summer and last under the snow till the spring, giving the plant a head start. The flower appears along with last year’s growth, the new leaves come later.
Pictures of Round Lobed - One* | Two | Three (white) | Four (lavender) | Five
Pictures od Sharp Lobed - One | Two | Three | Four
* includes photo of the leaf of the sharp lobed
Not a native. One of the very early flowers, yellow like a dandelion but without leaves. I see this most often in land that has been disturbed such as beside a gravel road.
Pictures - One | Two | Three | Four
White flower, single. The leaf is the tip off for me, it is a good size leaf in a swirl with the flower emerging from the centre of the swirl. The name comes from the orange-red sap in the root – believe me, you do not need to pull one up to see.
Pictures - One | Two | Three | Four | Five
Particularly delicate and pleasing small flowers, but you are going to need a guidebook to tell them apart. There are white, yellow, blue and not surprising violet violets. Most have a distinctive heart shaped leaf.
Pictures - One | Two | Three | Four | Check the Gallery of Connecticut Wildflowers website for other violet species
The flower is hidden, right beside the ground, and is bell shaped and a purple-brown. The leaves are heart shaped. I often see wild ginger in patches of many plants. The root has the taste and smell of ginger.
Pictures - One | Two | Three | Four |
Very showy yellow flower. Usually in clumps and most often near or sometimes even in streams. If the area is damp and the yellow flower can be seen from a distance it is likely the Marsh Marigold.
Pictures - One | Two | Three | Four |
TROUT LILY or DOG TOOTHED VIOLET
Nodding yellow flower, very common, usually in large patches. The leaf is oval shaped and usually mottled with brown (dog’s tooth). In the southern areas of the trail I find a White Trout Lily, similar but with a white flower.
Pictures - One | Two | Three | Four | Five | Six (white variety) |
Small yellow-green or purplish flowers, a small cluster of flowers. When this plant is first seen in the spring the leaves look like a small claw. The colour is a dark green/blue. Quickly the leaves spread and are a more normal green. The seeds, seen in the late summer, are a bright blue and look similar to a blueberry.
Pictures - One | Two | Three (Flowering) | Four (Fruiting) |
RED TRILLIUM or WAKE ROBIN
Maroon or dark purple flower, larger than a white trillium. I usually see this before the white trilliums are out.
Pictures - One | Two | Three |
The floral emblem of Ontario and everyone’s favorite. A carpet of trilliums beside the trail is striking. The three petals are pure white however as the flower ages this white turns to pink. Some mistake this for a different flower however it is the same trillium. On occasion the plant is attacked by a virus, which will present itself as a green stripe on the white petal or even have the petals all green. Along the Bruce Trail from Twiss Road to the Guelph Line in the Iroquoia Section is a good area to view these variations.
Pictures - One | Two | Three | Four | Five | Six | Seven
The three green leaves are similar to the Trilliums but that is where the similarity ends. The flower is a striped green tube with a hood on the top. Under the hood is a lovely shade of purple. By later in August the fruit appears and it is a tight cluster of green berries. This cluster turns an orange scarlet in September.
Pictures - One | Two | Three | Four | Five | Six | Seven | Showing Fruit |
BANEBERRY, WHITE and RED
The small white flowers in a cluster are not particularly showy however once you have learned the notched leaves and the higher than usual plants, 1 to 3 feet, they are easily identified. What is showy about these flowers is their fruit. In the fall it stands out, the White Baneberry is often called “Doll’s Eyes”, the Red is less common but again a reminder of spring past.
Pictures (White/Doll's Eyes) - One | Two | Three |
Pictures (Red) - One | Two | Three |
Fruit of Both - One
LARGE FLOWERED BELLWORT
The leaves of this flower appear to droop and the flower nods. The flower is a rich yellow 1 to 2 inches long. Whenever I see it I am surprised, and pleased, as it seems a little out of place as a spring wild flower.
Pictures - One | Two | Three | Four |
"Wort" is an Anglo-Saxon/old English word meaning plant, herb, or sometimes root. Bellwort is a plant that has "bells", the common St. John's Wort is a plant named for St. John the Baptist and liverwort (a more primitive, non-flowering plant) has the "texture" of beef liver when observed up close (but a different colour).
The delicate solitary hidden white flowers always seem to take forever to appear. The two quite large deeply cleft leaves look to me like small umbrellas. Eventually the flower forms under the leaves and is worth waiting for.
Pictures - One | Two | Three | Four | Five | Six | Fruit |
DUTCHMAN’S BREECHES and SQUIRREL CORN
Both members of the bleeding-heart family the best way to describe these white flowers is to liken them to a pair of pantaloons. There is a difference between the two however it will take a little study to determine it.
Picture of flowers of BOTH species - One
Pictures of Dutchman's Breeches - One | Two | Three | Four
Pictures of Squirrel Corn - One | Two | Three
The wild columbine is one of the later spring flowers but well worth the wait. It is tall plant and the nodding scarlet flowers are unique. A bell shape with a yellow center.
Pictures - One | Two | Three | Watercolour image
WILD LEEKS or RAMPS
The rich green leaf of the wild leek tells me that spring has finally arrived. The flower takes its time though. The leaves are gone when a single stalk appears with a cluster of small white flowers on the top. The flowers fade away over the summer. In the fall we are treated to a stalk with a unique group of berries that resemble individual small black ball bearings on the top.
Pictures - One | Two | Three | Four | Good photo of bulb | Visit wild-leeks.com for more information & recipes.
"The leaves die back when the trees’ leaves block the sun from reaching them, but a slender, smooth, erect flowerstalk 6 inches to 1-1/2 feet tall, supports a small umbrella-like cluster of 6-petaled flowers in the summer, followed by tiny, shiny black seeds that remind me of BBs. Underground, you’ll find white bulbs, usually clustered, which are edible spring (when you collect the leaves), summer, and fall (plus mild winters, if you can find them). When they’re no leaves, look for the flower-or seedstalk."
SKUNK CABBAGE ... a spring wildflower?
Also known as dracontium, skunk-weed, polecat-weed, swamp-cabbage, meadow-cabbage, collard, fetid hellebore, stinking poke, and pockweed, wheeeeew ...... skunk cabbage is another example of the wonders of nature but don't use it for your next cabbage salad as it is poinsonous, stinks and isn't "cabbage".
It is one of the first plants to bloom in spring but just as often you can find it in late winter before all the snow has gone. Some have reported seeing it as early as late January. The skunk cabbage flower is not the typical spring flower (conspicuous petals, etc.) and is more like a calla lily or jack-in-the-pulpit flower [see picture with labels]. The flower appears before the large green leaves. Also, it has an interesting method for generating its own heat so it can start this early. These various "tricks" that plants have are often called "plant strategies" by the botanists. You will find skunk cabbage in the lower, wet swampy spots along our Ontario trails. If you did the Avon Trail end-to-end with me in a previous spring we saw lots of it then. Like many plants it has recognizable stages from late winter/early spring to fall when the fruit is apparent.
"Skunk cabbage is a fascinating plant for several reasons. First is the ability of the plant to generate heat. The heat is generated when the sugars produced by photosynthesis are transformed into other molecules. The process used by skunk cabbage to break down the sugars is very inefficient, so the heat is produced. Skunk cabbage can be 10°C warmer than the surrounding air. A second fascinating characteristic of skunk cabbage is the coloration of the "blossom." This "blossom" is a dark purplish structure, somewhat conical, with some green streaks. It is not actually a blossom at all, but is a modified leaf called a spathe. The spathe looks (and smells) something like rotting meat. It is not appealing to bees and butterflies (or most people), instead it attracts carrion flies. Where do the flies go? That is also quite interesting. The flies fly inside the spathe to a spike-like structure called a spadix. The spadix is difficult to see from a distance; if you imagine a swollen, green thumb dotted with little yellow bumps, you’ll have a good idea of what it looks like. The little yellow bumps on the spadix are the flowers of skunk cabbage; they are quite inconspicuous. It is to these flowers that the flies go, and during their visits they transfer pollen from flower to flower and from skunk cabbage to skunk cabbage." Source: The Arboretum, University of Wisconsin by Judy Kingsbury, Arboretum Naturalist
If you wish to learn more about this peculiar plant, start with the Chicago Wilderness Magazine's online article by Patricia Armstrong entitled Skunk Cabbage: Methusalehs of the plant world. Then check the picture links (immediately below) for more information and if you are not familiar with skunk cabbage, start looking for it very early on the trail.
Pictures: One (flower) | Two (flower) | Three (flower) | Four (flower) | Five (flower) | Six (leaves) | Seven (Chou puant)
Great closeups showing spathe, spadix & tiny flowers at the Delaware Wildflowers website
Pictures from Toronto area taken by W. Banner:
Wildflower Watch - Dean Gugler. All flowers seen in or near Hamilton, Ontario and Wild Flower Photos by Ron Hepworth
Gallery of Connecticut Wildflowers (browse by colour or name)
Delaware Wildflowers - listed by Common name • Scientific name Family • Origin & rarity by David G. Smith
Backyard Plants is a section of the website Backyard Nature by Naturalist, Jim Conrad. Jim's Backyard Plants includes lots of information about plants and is not overly scientific. He deals with topics such as "What is a flowering plant?", the various parts of a plant as well as Gymnosperms, Mosses, Ferns, Fungi and more.
Flora of Southern Ontario of the Grand Valley Trails Association - is a gateway to a variety of flora that one may see while hiking trails in Southern Ontario. It includes wildflowers, trees, shrubs and woody vines, ferns and fungi.