A Joyful Treasure Hunt – Spring Flower Discoveries in Minnesota State Parks

Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

By Deborah Locke, Information Officer
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Spring. Even the word sounds energetic.

The season unfolds in layers at Minnesota state parks, giving way to thousands of acres of early spring ephemerals and spring wildflowers. For the price of a daily or annual park pass, Minnesota state park visitors can sample miles of floral eye candy, one of nature’s first signs of spring.

So, pull on a hooded sweatshirt, grab a water bottle, call your best friend or make this a solo trip to your nearest state park. As winter leaves, thousands of delicate-looking flowers push through heavy soil, lift their blooms and carpet forest floors. The blooms may look fragile, but they’re tough, adjusting for harsh winter growing conditions, and usually blooming close to the ground and out of the wind. We will feature three Minnesota state parks, each with impressive spring wildflower displays.

Hepatica. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Itasca State Park

Connie Cox, interpretive naturalist at Itasca State Park in north central Minnesota, said that the first blooming spring flowers at Itasca are the purple blossomed round-lobed hepatica. Also, the bloodroot blooms with its white flower and scalloped leaves. Later the wild ginger blooms with its heart-shaped leaves, and the Large-flowered Bellwort with its twisted yellow petals. Finally, the large-flowered trillium blooms with its one-foot tall stem.

She said that traditionally, spring wildflower viewing is popular as state residents emerge from winter. Hikers discover the first hepaticas, wild ginger and bloodroot. The spring ephemeral viewing culminates with the blooming of the large-flowered trilliums, an event for which visitors will make a special trip. The most common questions received at the park about spring flowers are: “Are any flowers blooming?” and “Are the trillium blooming?” and finally, “When will the lady-slippers bloom?” (To the last question: June.)

Wild ginger. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Camden State Park 

Camden State Park, located in southwestern Minnesota, features a hardwood valley surrounded by open prairie. Valley wildflowers include white trillium, trout lilies, bloodroot and violets. The prairie, too, comes alive in the spring with pasque flowers and prairie smoke, said Neil Slifka, an area resource specialist out of Owatonna. 

Trout lilies are widespread throughout Minnesota state parks except for the western prairie counties, Slifka said. The yellow trout lily with its mottled leaf shaped like a trout is restricted to Minnesota woodlands. Large colonies of lilies grow in hardwood forests, appearing like a blanket at Camden State Park. 

Spring ephemerals like trout lilies, the showy lady’s slipper (Minnesota’s state flower) and trillium are important food sources to early seed spreaders like ants, Slifka said. True to its name, the trillium, which grows in small groups, contains three leaves and three petals. Like all spring ephemerals, the flower bloom grows before its leaves, and the entire flower dies by the time nearby trees produce leaves.

Large Flowered Trillium. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Nerstrand Big Woods State Park

Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, located in southeastern Minnesota, contains large patches of trillium that are easily visible from the park’s boardwalks. Generally, the park is a poster child for spring ephemerals, Slifka said. The park is known for its sharp-lobed hepatica, and dwarf trout lilies. A short quarter-mile walk from the parking lot will take you down the boardwalk to the Hidden Falls Waterfall, past thick areas of spring ephemerals. At Nerstrand, volunteer “wildflower ambassadors” answer questions from park visitors about spring flowers.

The above begs a question. Why bother to drive to a state park when it’s so much easier to run to a garden store and buy a potted blooming plant? 

Connie Cox offered an eloquent answer. “I impulsively buy tulips, buttercups and hyacinths that make their way into local stores,” Cox explained, “longing to bring some beauty into my home. But my greatest joy is discovering the beauty that nature provides. Each wildflower blooms in its own time. Each has its own special place it likes to grow. The interesting sizes, shapes, colors, and smells make for an exciting adventure of discovery.

Wood anemone. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

“Getting outside and enjoying the fresh air, trying to find the wildflowers in their natural home not only brings joy,” said Cox, “but is still a type of treasure hunt. I find myself exploring new areas around my home, around the forests near me, but also going to new places to see and photograph other spring flowers that don’t grow in my area, like pasque flowers, skunk cabbage or Dutchman’s breeches. Each grows in a special landscape worth protecting. 

“But it really is more than just looking for flowers,” Cox explained. “You can also hear the birds that are returning, smell the rich smell of moist soil, or the ‘green’ smell of emerging vegetation. You can feel the play of warm sunlight or the coolness as a breeze blows across the retreating lake ice. You might spot a pair of swans standing on the ice, waiting for it to melt so they can build their nest. And who knows, you might see the next generation of wildlife that, like spring, is beginning a new life. Be it wildflowers or wildlife, for me, seeing that first blooms of new life is something I remember and can treasure when next winter comes and I once again long for spring and the discovery of the cycle of life.” 

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