Early Spring Wildflowers

Canada Violet

Spring not brings the birds and butterflies back to the Great White North, it also brings wildflowers, the earliest of which are known as spring ephemerals. These perennial woodland wildflowers grow early each spring, quickly blooming and producing seed before the deciduous trees leaf out and prevent the sunlight from reaching the forest floor. Once these wildlflowers have gone to seed, the leaves and stems above ground often wither and die off, leaving only the underground structures (including the roots, rhizomes, and bulbs) alive during the remainder of the year. This strategy allows many different plants to thrive in deciduous forests by taking advantage of the early spring sunlight prior to the development of the tree canopy.

Trilliums are among the earliest wildflowers to emerge, and are among the best known in our region given that the Great White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) is Ontario’s provincial flower. Some woodlands are lucky to have hundreds of these pretty white flowers carpeting the forest floor in the spring, while other forested areas might have only a couple. I was lucky to see a few white trilliums in Deevy Pines Park in the spring, while some areas of Monaghan Forest were absolutely carpeted in them. I never tire of seeing these flowers, as the bright white petals remind me of the clean white face of a Dot-tailed Whiteface or White-faced Meadowhawk dragonflies, neither of which are on the wing when this flower is in bloom.

Great White Trillium

Although it is commonly believed that it is illegal to pick white trilliums in Ontario, this is not the case (except for national and provincial parks, or conservation areas, which have their own rules about collecting). However, it is best to follow the old saying “take only pictures, leave only footprints” when overcome with the desire to take the flowers home. If the leaves are taken along with the flower are picked, the plant may not be able to photosynthesize enough food to last it through another winter and die. In addition, the plant will no longer be able to produce seeds, which means that this particular plant will not be able to produce a new generation. And once the plant dies, it takes seven to ten years in optimal conditions for a newly sown seed to reach flowering size – not including the two years it takes to germinate.

As white trilliums begin to age, they often turn pale pink. I find the pastel colours of the pink trilliums just as intriguing as the fresh white trilliums.

Great White Trillium

The yellow stamens against the pink petals are particularly pretty.

Great White Trillium

If you look carefully among the white trilliums, you may chance upon the blood-red colour of a Red Trillium (Trillium erectum). They can be tough to find, as the flowers tend to bend forward, with the flowers angled downward. I found a few at both Monaghan and Deevy Pines, and while a few were bent too far over to photograph, I got lucky with some others standing upright.

Red Trillium

Red Trillium

Trout Lily is another early spring ephemeral. These plants send up thousands of leaves every spring, each bearing the mottled pattern that is said to resemble a brook trout. Only older plants develop two leaves and a flower; this is because the plant’s corm (a swollen, underground plant stem that stores nutrients to enable the plant’s survival) must be deep enough (10 to 20 centimetres below ground) before it will use the stored energy to producing the additional leaf and flower. The ratio of non-flowering to flowering plants is usually very high, which means I don’t find very many flowers to photograph each spring.

Trout Lily

A trip to the South March Highlands produced some flowers that I have never seen in Stony Swamp, along with a few that are much less common than the trilliums and Yellow Trout Lilies that can be abundant in southern Kanata. The first of these was Blue Phlox (Phlox divaricata), a spring ephemeral found in rich deciduous woodlands, woodland edges, floodplains, and along the margins of swamps. While I think I have seen some at Jack Pine Trail once, this is not the first time I’ve seen in at South March Highlands. The flowers are pale blue, a stunning contrast to all of the red, white, pink and yellow flowers that are most common this time of year.

Blue Phlox

Violets are in bloom right now as well; despite their name, the flowers come in colours other than purple. Found chiefly in woods, violets produce flowers from May through June. The Downy Yellow Violet is the only yellow violet in our region, making it easy to identify.

Downy Yellow Violet

The Canada Violet is the most common white violet in our region. It is also said to be one of our most distinctive species. The flowers petals are white on the inside while the backs are pale violet. The center of the flower is yellow with brownish-purple veins radiating outward from the base.

Canada Violet

Red Columbine is very common in the South March Highlands. This native plant grows in partly-shaded to shaded woodland habitat in calcareous (containing calcium carbonate, or lime) soils that aren’t too rich. Their flowers are attractive to hummingbirds, bees, butterflies, and hawk moths, while the seeds are eaten by birds such as finches. Red Columbine is the host plant of the Columbine Duskywing caterpillar, so there’s a good chance that most of the small duskywings seen in the South March Highlands are Columbine Duskywings.

Red Columbine

The Starflower is a new one for me. This native plant grows in a variety of forest soils ranging from dry to wet, and even in bogs where the soil is acidic. It thrives in dappled shade, tolerating full sun only if the soil is constantly moist. The snow-white flowers are small and easily overlooked, each having an average of seven overlapping petals with pointed lobes that spread upward and outward.


The last new flower for me at South March Highlands was a clump of Yellow Archangel growing right along the roadside. The flowers were quite interesting, consisting of modified petals that form two lips. Anything growing along the roadside is not likely to be native, and not only is this European plant not native, it is also quite invasive, spreading by seeds, cuttings, root fragments and stolons. Still, it was quite lovely, even though it has a tendency to spread quickly and out-compete native plants.

Yellow Archangel

I love seeing all the colourful flowers this time of year, especially the trilliums that carpet the woods in many places. It has also been fun looking for new flowers I haven’t seen before, and learning about the native plants that grow in our area.

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