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The perks of being a wildflower

A photo of a white trout lily is highlighted and circled.
Madeleine Charis King
White dogtooth violet, or white trout lily, is a small, early blooming lily found in Iowa woodlands.

In early spring, Iowa’s woodlands begin to fill in with color. If you look closely, you’ll find a wealth of wildflowers, many of which will only bloom for a short period of time. These “spring ephemerals” are the official harbinger of a new season.

To help you identify these spring beauties, we’ve put together a field guide with some common flowering ephemerals. Keep an eye out for them as you step outside this spring!

What are spring ephemerals?

Spring ephemerals are Iowa wildflowers that bloom in early spring, set seed and go dormant again by early summer. They spend most of the year underground in structures like bulbs (think daffodils and tulips) or rootstalks. We only get to enjoy their blooms for a brief period of time — hence, “ephemeral.”

These early wildflowers are vital to woodland ecosystems because they support pollinators and take up and hold nutrients that would otherwise be washed away by spring rain.

When to start looking for spring wildflowers

You’re most likely to find these wildflowers in bloom as winter begins to thaw and before tree canopies fill in, blocking the sunlight. Don’t wait to go looking for these beauties — some ephemerals may bloom for only a day or less.

Where to find spring ephemerals in Iowa

Spring ephemerals pop up in Iowa’s wooded areas, so you should have luck hunting down blooms at any park or other place with lots of trees. If you want guaranteed flower finding, try these spots throughout Iowa:

Katoski Greenbelt, Waterloo — Virginia Bluebells abound along miles of hiking trails in this 1,100 acre plot within Waterloo’s city limits.

“Reactor Woods,” Ames — Home to trout-lily, false rue-anemone, spring beauty and other wildflowers, this public property is managed by Iowa State University and has miles of trails for wildflower lovers to look for blooms.

Iowa’s State Parks and Forests — Backbone, Pikes Peak, Ledges, or any other state park or forest is sure to have spring ephemerals popping out. Just remember it’s illegal to pick them in state parks, preserves and county parks.

Before you head out…

If you enjoy walking and trails, this is a great spring-time adventure to undertake by yourself or with family and friends. Just remember picking ephemerals is prohibited in some places. If you’re unsure of the regulations where you are, a good rule of thumb is to leave them be for all to enjoy.

Good luck hunting!

Field Guide

Wildflowers are a sight for sore eyes after a long winter, but how do you know what’s what? We’ve compiled a list of common spring ephemerals, their striking features and pictures to help you ID them.

Blue flowers that resemble bells with green leaves.
Michael Leland

Virginia bluebells — Virginia bluebells are purplish-blue, trumpet-shaped flowers that emit a sweet fragrance. They hang down from long green stems with oval leaves. Don’t miss this Hort Day favorite!

small white flowers
Cindy McMullen
False rue-anemones

False rue-anemones — False rue-anemones, not to be confused with rue-anemones, grow on thin, reddish stems with two or three-lobed leaves. The flowers have five white petals and delicate yellow stamens.

White flowers that resemble pants
Michael Leland
Dutchman's breeches

Dutchman's breeches — Dutchman’s breeches look like cropped pants (breeches) hanging upside down, surrounded by ferny foliage. These fun flowers bloom and go dormant first in the spring.

Small purple-white flowers with white filaments
MJ Noethe

Hepatica — One of the first flowers to pop up in the spring, the purple-white flowers go up around six inches off the woodland floor. You can spot these beauties by their many petals, stamens and pistils.

Small purple flowers
Charity Nebbe
Spring Beauties

Spring beauties — Spring beauties are small white flowers with thin, pale to bright pink stripes. They are low to the ground (generally three to six inches) and have a pleasant floral scent.

Laura Fischer Walter
White trout lily

White trout lily — White trout lilies are six-petaled, white flowers that close at night and open during the day. The petals peel away from the center to reveal bright yellow stamen, and their green leaves have brown-purple spotting that fade with age.

Michael Leland
Woodland phlox

Woodland phlox — Woodland phlox, also called Wild Sweet William, appear as clusters of small, blue or purple flowers. The clusters sit atop long stems with long, narrow leaves.

Small white flower with large petals.
Michael Leland

Bloodroot — Bloodroot flowers have eight to ten white petals surrounding a bunch of golden stamen at their center. The plant gets its name from the red sap that’s released when the stem and roots are cut open.

LD MacBride

Jack-in-the-pulpit — Jack-in-the-pulpit is a tubular flower with a Jack (a club-like appendage) appearing out of the tube. The jack is capped by the top of the flower. These plants are usually all green in Iowa woodlands, but they can have some white or purple coloring, as well.

Wish you could take these wildflowers home to your garden? Check out this advice on planting and transplanting spring ephemerals from ISU Horticulture Specialist Cindy Haynes. 

Sumner Wallace is an intern for IPR’s digital team. Sumner grew up in Iowa City, but now attends Oberlin College in Ohio, where she is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Rhetoric and Media Studies with a minor in Chemistry. She has also worked for Little Village Magazine and The Oberlin Review.
As the newsletter product manager, Madeleine (she/her) coordinates and writes for Iowa Public Radio’s newsletter portfolio, including The Daily Digest and Political Sense.