Spring Woodland Flowers: Overcoming the Learning Challenge

Posted: April 27, 2018

Across Pennsylvania it is a season of wonder in the woods as the plant community comes alive and takes advantage of the longer, brighter days and warming soils.

Maybe you’ve been in the woods with someone who seemingly knows every plant, even those impossible to identify spring wildflowers. It is seemingly amazing that someone can learn all those plants; however, with some dedication, a modicum of interest, and a half-decent wildflower guidebook, you can easily move up the “I know that plant” scale.

Across Pennsylvania it is a season of wonder in the woods as the plant community comes alive and takes advantage of the longer, brighter days and warming soils. Mixed among the detritus from last year’s annual, biennial, and perennial herbaceous plants, the careful observer will spy shades of green or even some seemingly misplaced blossoms. It is the season of “what is THAT?”

Most of us use field guides to learn these plants by associating pictures or drawings of blooms, short descriptions of flower structure, and even shorter site condition descriptions. When the blooms are present, matching pictures to the flower might still be somewhat of a challenge. What color is the flower, really? How many petals? As well, the description might include words that you just don’t understand. What does it mean that the flower is complete or incomplete? What is an inflorescence? Nonetheless, field guides and picture matching are useful and, in the end, about the best way to work through the identification process. Unfortunately, too often it seems you are either too early or late too match pictures to flowers. This suggests that learning when to look for spring flowers is part of the identification process.

Phenology is the study of how seasons, climate, and site factors influence plant cycles. Even with only a passing interest in woodland spring wildflowers you are already aware of phenological processes as you anticipate certain seasonal events. For example, many people look forward to seeing yellow coltsfoot plants blooming in the gravel berms along country roads; however, without pausing to study them closely, they might think they are dandelion flowers which are still weeks away from showing their first blooms. In the case of these two flowers, which are both non-native to the United States, a quick look at the flowers finds similarities; however, the coltsfoot leaves don’t show until early summer, while the dandelion leaf rosettes are likely already present in your lawn.

Botanists refer to many of the spring wildflowers as spring ephemerals, which means they last only a short time. As spring makes its way to the area, when growing conditions are right, these plants are visible in the forest. A couple of the first easily recognized spring ephemeral wildflowers in Pennsylvania woodlands are spring beauty and trout lily. For both these species, the leaves, which precede the conspicuous, small, delicate flowers, are the first evidence of their presence. In the case of the trout lily, the mottled leaves foretell a future show of nodding yellow flowers; however, the longer thinner leaves of the spring beauty are less descriptive and you may have to wait to ascertain the presence of the delicate white and pink striped blossoms. With either of these flowers, when you find them, they often cover rather large areas – they seem to be everywhere common – you can’t avoid stepping on them.

As you learn about spring wildflowers, you can begin to anticipate when and where to look for them, and this knowledge hopefully will pull you back to see the show. Even if you miss the show, you will begin to learn the leaf and fruit structures of some common ephemeral plants, some of which are very distinct. For example, the leaves of our native orchids remain long after the passing blooms. If you are lucky enough to see a spread of orchids, most commonly lady slippers, you will likely recall the vision in coming springs as other clues remind you of upcoming seasonal woodland events. If you find only the leaves, they may entice you to come back to the place again in hopes of seeing the flowers.

Much of the joy of learning the woodland wildflowers is the anticipation of the season’s show. Where will it be? When will conditions be right? What leaves represent the coming display? Or, what display did you miss? Eventually, you learn to look for the signs in particular places, much as you anticipate seeing friends when you are in familiar neighborhoods. When you find a wildflower that you want to know, record in your field guide when you saw it, where it lives, and record, at least mentally, your own description of the neighborhood where it lives. This latter point is important. Look at the woodland neighborhood, especially the more permanent plants as clues to the wildflowers that may live there.

Contact Information

James Finley, Ph.D.
  • Professor Emeritus of Forest Resources
Phone: 814-863-0402