Below is a list, roughly in the order they bloom each April and May, of some of the spring wildflower species you may find in the woodlands and nearby areas of southern Vermont. Please remember not to pick wildflowers, only take photos. More information is available from the Native Plant Trust and field guides such as Peterson's Field Guide to Wildflowers: Northeastern and North-central North America or Spring Wildflowers of New England by Marilyn J. Dwelley.
1. COLTSFOOT (scientific name Tussilago farfara): This bright yellow, dandelion-like blossom appears very early in the spring, blossoming along roadsides and on sandy banks. This plant is non-native. Its big leaves follow later, in what can be imagined as the footprint of a small horse. Note the reddish scales on the stalk and bristle of the flower itself.
2. SPRING BEAUTY (scientific name Claytonia caroliniana): Truly a beauty. Five white to light pink flower petals are streaked with darker pink veins; the low-growing flower stalk is flanked by two linear leaves. Spring beauties are prolific in the deciduous woods of southern Vermont, early in the season. The blossoms open only when the sun is shining; on gray days they appear as buds.
3. SHARP-LOBED HEPATICA (scientific name Anemone acutiloba): A delightful early blooming species found in rich woodlands, its flowers may appear bright blue, lavender, white, or pink, coming directly from the ground on its own hairy stem. The leaves are heart-shaped at the base and have three lobes. The word hepatica derives from the Greek word for liver, because the three-lobed leaf was thought to resemble the human liver. Early flower guides call the plant “liverwort.”
4. BLUNT-LOBED HEPATICA (scientific name Hepatica americana): Also grows in Vermont woodlands, and is similar to sharp-lobed Hepatica above. You can distinguish this species by looking at its leaves, which have three lobes that are rounded, rather than pointed. It tends to grow in drier areas with more acidic soil than sharp-loped Hepatica does.
5. BLOODROOT (scientific name Sanguinaria canadensis): Found in moist to dry woodlands, the bloodroot leaf and flower each rise on a separate stem. At first, the large, round, and deeply cleft leaf completely enwraps the flower bud. The clear white, many-petaled blossom, with a golden center, may open before the leaf has completely unwrapped, rising slightly above the leaf to a height of 6-10 in. This fragile blossom opens in full sun, and closes at night. A broken stem or root bleeds an orange-red juice, thus the name bloodroot.
6. MARSH MARIGOLD (scientific name Caltha palustris): Look for this cheery, yellow-flowered plant (also known as cowslip) in swampy, marshy, wet areas, and along streams and brooks. A mounding, perennial succulent with glossy heart-shaped leaves, this plant holds clusters of large, showy, buttercup-like, yellow flowers on thick, hollow, branching stems, and grows 8 in.-2 ft. tall. While parts of the plant are used medicinally, handling the plant can cause skin irritation, and uncooked parts are toxic to human consumption.
7. ROUNDLEAF YELLOW VIOLET (scientific name Viola rotundifolia): Otherwise known as Early Yellow Violet (or round-leaved yellow violet), this small, compact plant grows close to the ground—only 3-5 inches tall—in rich, cool woods. The bright yellow bloom on a leafless stem, coupled with round or heart-shaped leaves, is the noticeable feature. Look for dark stripes on the lower lip of the blossom, a certain marker.
8. PURPLE TRILLIUM (scientific name Trillium erectum): One of the most common eastern Trilliums, Purple Trillium is a perennial wildflower with deep red, three-petaled flowers growing above three large green whorled leaves. Its genus name is derived from the Latin word for "three," a reference to the fact that the floral parts of the plant occur in threes (three leaves, three petals, three sepals). Found in shaded and semi-shaded habitat, they will grow up to 16 in. tall in large patches, or as a solitary plant. Purple Trillium is also known as red trillium, Wakerobin (a reference to the red breast of the American robin), Stinking Benjamin, Ill-scented Trillium, Stinking Willie, Wet Dog Trillium, and Wet Dog Wakerobin. These latter names are a reference to the fact that the flowers have an unpleasant, fetid scent that attracts flesh flies, carrion beetles, and similar insects to act as pollinators.
9. TROUT-LILY (scientific name Erythronium americanum): Also known as adder's tongue or dog-toothed violet, the trout-lily's maroon-mottled leaves, which are said to resemble the markings on trout, give rise to slender stalks bearing nodding yellow flowers. Commonly found in northern hardwood forests, you may discover them blooming among spring beauties.
10. PAINTED TRILLIUM (scientific name Trillium undulatum): Considerably less commonly seen than the Purple Trillium, the Painted Trillium has a slender stalk, 8-16 inches high, with a whorl of three large, blue-green leaves. This is one of the most attractive woodland Trilliums, and is easily recognized by the splash of pink-purple at the center of each white, wavy-edged petal.
11. TRAILING ARBUTUS (scientific name Epigaea repens): a low-growing, creeping, evergreen plant with oval, leathery leaves and hairy stems. It bears small, sweet-scented white or pink flowers, ½ inch across, with 5 petals that are fused, forming a tube about ½ inch long. It’s an early spring bloomer that favors exposed sites in pine or mixed wood forests, especially on acid soil, where the plants are not covered with leaf litter.
12. DUTCHMAN'S BREECHES (scientific name Dicentra cucullaria) and SQUIRREL CORN (Dicentra canadensis): the confusing cousins. Patches of feathery green leaves, low-growing in rich woodlands early in spring, are likely to be either Dutchman’s breeches or squirrel corn. The flowers appear a little bit later, on stems a few inches taller than the leaves; like the leaves, they can be confusing. Here are qualities that help distinguish one from the other:
13. WILD OATS / SESSILE-LEAVED BELLWORT (scientific name Uvularia sessilifolia): Also may be called Little Merrybells, Little Bellflower. The flower is abundant in the deciduous woods, or by the side of old dirt roads, relatively early in the wildflower season. It rises 6-12 inches high, with a single, long, bell-shaped, straw-colored flower hanging at the end of an arched stem, which is often branched. Several long, pointed leaves attach directly to the stem (but do not surround the stem). Wild Oats, a delicate plant, is in the lily family along with its larger relatives Solomon’s Seal, False Solomon’s Seal, and other less common bellworts, all of which grow in similar locations at approximately the same season.
14. LITTLE BLUET (scientific name Houstonia caerulea): Also known as Quaker Ladies, bluets are creeping perennials that appear as tiny wildflowers in the landscape, growing singly on 2- to 2 ½-inch stalks in late spring. The ½-inch-wide four-lobed flowers are pale blue, sometimes white, with a yellow eye. The flowers themselves are very small, but bloom profusely in their basal rosette form, creating a delicate carpet of blooms.
15. WILD GINGER (scientific name Asarum canadense): This low, colony-forming perennial grows only 4-8 inches high. Each plant bears a pair of large, velvety, heart-shaped leaves. Growing at ground level in the crotch between 2 leafstalks is a single darkish red-brown to green-brown flower. The solitary flower is at ground level, hidden below the leaves, evolved to attract small pollinating flies that emerge from the ground early in the spring looking for a thawing carcass of an animal that did not survive the winter. The fleshy rootstock, which has a strong, gingery flavor, can create a crowded network on the woodland floor, resulting in a dense ground cover.
16. BLUE COHOSH (scientific name Caulophyllum giganteum): What you will see in the spring season is all dark red! The leaves come up like dark, smoky, purplish-green fiddleheads, in rich, moist woods, quite early in spring. As the large, deeply cut leaves unfold, all from one big stem, a separate flower stem will produce a terminal cluster of brownish-red blossoms with yellow centers. The plant continues to grow to a height of one to three feet. Later in the season, the flower seeds look like small deep blue berries, thus the name blue cohosh.
17. SOLOMON'S SEAL: There are several species of this plant, but all have the same structure. The single stem arches to heights of one to three feet, with alternate leaves veined lengthwise; the leaves are progressively smaller from bottom to top of the stem. The flowers dangle from the stem where the leaf joins the stalk, usually in pairs, though some species may sport a triple. Color varies with species as well, from creamy white to greenish yellow, but always bell-shaped and tubular.
The species most common in our rich woodlands is hairy Solomon's seal (Polygonatum pubescens), which can be as little as 12” high; the very much larger giant Solomon's seal (Polygonatum biflorum) grows in domestic gardens.
Related species include the feathery false Solomon's seal (Maianthemum racemosum), whose stem and leaf structure bears close resemblance to Solomon’s seal, but differs greatly in the flower. False Solomon’s seal produces small, creamy-white blossoms growing in a spire-shaped cluster at the tip of the stem. Later in the season, the blossoms develop into a cluster of bright red berries, noticeable in the summer woods.
18. RED COLUMBINE (scientific name Aquilegia canadensis): This beautiful woodland wildflower, an upright, herbaceous perennial native to woodland and rocky slopes, grows up to 2 feet tall. The plant has nodding, red and yellow, bell-like flowers, with backward-pointing tubes. These tubes, or spurs, contain nectar that attracts long-tongued insects and hummingbirds especially adapted for reaching the sweet secretion. The genus name Aquilegia comes from the Latin aquila, which means eagle, and refers to the spurred petals that many believe resemble an eagle’s talons. Once established in a site, columbine will propagate for years and, although perennial, increases rapidly by self-seeding.
19. CANADA MAYFLOWER (scientific name Maianthemum canadense): It first appears as a green shoot, often in colonies on the forest floor or in the shade of roadside trees. The shoot opens into either one single smooth upright leaf, heart shaped at its base, or—less often—into a slightly taller stalk bearing 2 or 3 leaves and topped by a cluster of small 4-pointed, star-shaped white blossoms. Light red berries speckled with darker red spots follow later in the season. The plant varies in height from 3 to 6 inches. Not a mayflower at all, but a member of the lily family, it is also known as wild lily-of-the-valley.
20. TWO-LEAVED TOOTHWORT (scientific name: Cardamine diphylla): This is an upright, 8-16 inch perennial with paired leaves, each dissected so deeply as to appear compound. The leaves are cut into 3-5 sections. Also known as crinkleroot (due to the shape of the rhizome), the roots are crisp with a pungent taste, and both leaves and roots can be added to salads. A loose cluster of white or light pink, four-petaled blossoms occur at the end of a stem rising above the leaves. It requires moderate moisture levels and rich soils, such as in woods or woodland edges. Full to partial sun is needed up to flowering, then partial to full shade for the summer.
21. VIOLETS: Botanists report that these closely related plants hybridize in the wild, adding to the challenge of identification. The three violets described below bloom in late May, and are easy to distinguish.