Wild Ideas: ISO spring ephemeral wildflowers  

Virginia bluebells add lovely pink and blue hues to the floodplain along the Rappahannock River.
Virginia bluebells add lovely pink and blue hues to the floodplain along the Rappahannock River. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News

This time of year, some native wildflowers in our woodlands, known as “spring ephemerals,” get a reproductive jump on their larger neighbors, then disappear. As Rappahannock resident and spring-ephemeral fan Bruce Jones put it in a recent email, “The spring dudes have a timetable: get out of the ground, bloom, get pollinated, and go to sleep when the leaf canopy closes in.”

Catching these wildflowers at their most beautiful is tricky. Bloom time depends on several factors, with temperature and exposure to sun key among them. These factors can vary with location, especially at different elevations. The length of bloom period also varies depending on the species, with some flowers coming and going so fast it’s easy to miss them. The bloodroot near my house bloomed and disappeared in a little more than a week. With the long, cold winter and fitful start of spring this year, timing walks to see spring ephemerals in bloom is even trickier than in most years. The best approach, I find, is to go into the woods as often as possible to see what’s blooming.

The prolific star chickweed can find a home almost anywhere in the forest where there is a bit of soil.
The prolific star chickweed can find a home almost anywhere in the forest where there is a bit of soil. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News

Some of the most sought-out spring ephemerals are peaking or will start soon: Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), trillium and ladyslippers. Last Sunday (April 19) I found bluebells along the Rappahannock River in the rich floodplain they prefer, their delicate beauty offsetting the river’s torn-up banks, ravaged by the winter and spring storms. Shenandoah River State Park (in Bentonville) offers the mile-long Bluebell Trail for seeing these and other spring ephemerals.

Depending on the species, ladyslippers (in the orchid family) and trillium typically start their show the last week in April. Thompson Wildlife Management Area (WMA), on the western border of Fauquier County, is famous for its trilliums, especially the large white trillium (Trillium grandiflorum). Ladyslippers, including the yellow ladyslipper (Cypripedium parviflorum) and the more common pink ladyslipper (Cypripedium acaule), also grow there.

Commenting on reports from someone who lives near Thompson, MidAtlanticHikes.com says that, along Thompson’s Trillium Trail there are  “literally millions of Trillium…, thousands of Showy Orchis (Galearis spectabilis or Orchis spectabilis) and, if you know where to look, some very impressive Yellow Lady Slippers.” On the website’s Thompson WMA page is an excellent, downloadable U.S. Geological Survey topographic map that should help with the hunt  — “Yellow Ladyslippers” set in large blue type with an arrow pointing to the spot. It also shows where to park for the Trillium Trail.

One option for seeing Thompson’s trilliums and ladyslippers is a bird walk by the Northern Virginia Bird Club on May 9, which also offers the chance to see many of the birds now migrating through or into our area to breed. Even if you miss the trilliums and ladyslippers this year, Thompson is still worth visiting for its great wildflower-viewing opportunities throughout the bloom season.

Shenandoah National Park is also a great place to see spring ephemerals. Its website has a page devoted to the park’s wildflowers that includes a downloadable chart of the most common ones in the park, organized by bloom times. The park’s 29th annual Wildflower Weekend is May 9-10 (download a schedule at nps.gov/shen/upload/Wildflower.pdf).

A lovely little wood anemone blooms in a wetland along the north fork of the Thornton River.
A lovely little wood anemone blooms in a wetland along the north fork of the Thornton River. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News

When I asked Bruce about the progress of his spring ephemerals in an email last week, he wrote back that celandine wood poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum) was in full bloom, twin leaf (Jeffersonia diphylla) was through with its bloom, and Hepatica were also about through flowering. However, he added, other spring ephemerals “are just popping through the leaf litter.”

“For the next 14 days something will be in bloom,” he says, “and it changes about every day.” (Check out Bruce’s spring ephemerals on his Jones Nature Preserve website.)

Where I live, I have yet to find some of the more spectacular spring wildflowers, such as trillium or ladyslippers, but I thoroughly enjoy the bloodroot that blooms throughout the forest here every year, brightening up the forest floor and offering hope that spring has finally begun. The more delicate wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa) is now blooming in the wetland down near the ponds, and the tiny star chickweed (Stellaria pubera), which started blooming in early April, is everywhere in the woods and should continue into June, which makes it not that ephemeral, but certainly a joy to see.

© 2015 Pam Owen

Where to see the wildflowers


Shenandoah River State Park: In Bentonville, just off Rt. 340. At dcr.virginia.gov, search on “Shenandoah River” for a downloadable map of the park and more information, or call 540-622-6840. Entrance fee. On the map, look for “Bluebell Trail” along the river.

Trillium and ladyslippers

Directions to Thompson WMA Trillium Trail: From Front Royal, go north on Rt. 55, turning left (north) onto Rt. 638 at Linden. Go 5.3 mi. to the Trillium Trail parking area on the right (look for a sign on a kiosk). Access requires purchase of a permit beforehand: online at dgif.virginia.gov/licenses, by phone at 1-866-721-6911, or from a license agent (see website).

Northern Virginia Bird Club birding walk: May 9, 8:30 a.m. Free, nonmembers welcome, reservations not required. Meets at Trillium Trail parking area. For more information, go to the club’s website.

References on Virginia spring ephemerals

“A Field Guide to Wildflowers: Northeastern and North-central North America” (Peterson Field Guides) by Margaret McKenny and Roger Tory Peterson.

“Wildflowers of the Appalachian Trail,” by Leonard M. Adkins, with great photos by Joe and Monica Cook, organized by bloom time.

“Wildflowers of the Shenandoah Valley and Blue Ridge Mountains” and “Wild Orchids of the Middle Atlantic States,” by Oscar W. Gupton and Fred C. Swope.

“Virginia Trees & Wildflowers: A folding pocket guide to familiar plants,” by James Kavanagh and illustrated by Raymond Leung, available from Waterford Press. For newbies or those who like to travel light, this handy laminated guide has many common wildflowers along with a list of botanical sanctuaries.

“Flora of Virginia,” by Alan S. Weakley, J. Christopher Ludwig, and John F. Townsend. For more experienced or ambitious wildflower hunters, this is a large, thorough guide with a decision tree (key) for identification, better as a desk reference than a field guide.

“Wildflowers of the United States” website.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 340 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”


  1. Thank you Pam. We had been at Thompson WMA a long time ago and was blown away at the trilliums. But I had lost the information about the location. I am so delighted to find it again. Also thank for all the other locations. I am pleased to find Bruce Jones has a website. My favorite, the Spring Beauties, never get mentioned much. They are so delicate and try so hard to carpet a whole woodland, I think they deserve attention. Hugs, Gwen

  2. Update: I visited the Trillium Trail and the Appalachian Trail at Thompson WMA on April 28, and the Large-flowered Trillium were jsut ramping up, with plenty in bloom, along with Trout Lily, Rue Anemone, Dutchman’s Breeches, and several other spring ephemerals. Wildflowers literally carpet the floor along both trails. Mayapple dominates there, and that should start blooming soon. It’s already blooming in the hollow where I live in Rappahannock County.

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