Wildflower Wonders

One of Ohio's greatest assets is its diverse natural areas and the flowers that thrive in them.

The big picture is spectacular. Beds of white, large-flowered trilliums shine in deep, secretive woodlands. Sand barrens covered with blue lupine are impossible for photographers and artists to resist. A mass of lakeside daisy faces, plants rooted in rock, defies all odds.

But on any Ohio wildflower walk, take time to sit (carefully!) among the plants or bend to their level. It’s then that you realize bloodroot enjoy each other’s company. Or that you can peek beneath the mysterious canopied world of the mayapple. Or that jack-in-the-pulpits hold secrets.

Ohio is home to several hundred wildflower species that bloom in spring and summer. Hungry deer and invasive plants, including garlic mustard, take their toll, but across Ohio, wildflowers are protected by those who understand the value of sweet common blue violets and the proud red spikes of cardinal flowers, a hummingbird favorite.

“Ohio has great diversity with its deciduous forests, prairie and bogs. I love prairie and bog wildflowers, but Ohio’s spring ephemerals in its woodlands are unmatchable,” says Guy Denny, board president of the Ohio Natural Areas and Preserves Association, a nonprofit preservation group. “Fowler Woods State Nature Preserve with its marsh marigolds, Clifton Gorge with its shooting stars, Eagle Creek with its trilliums…it’s amazing.”

Southern Ohio sees many of the state’s first wildflowers of the year. Christine Hadley, president of the Cincinnati Wild Flower Preservation Society, founded in 1917, suggests visiting the Cincinnati Parks’ California Woods Nature Preserve in eastern Hamilton County with “its steep ravines and woods.”

Look for early May bloomers, including Virginia spiderwort (prettier than its name) and fire-pink, named not for its color, but for its notched petals that look as if they were cut with pinking shears. Also enjoy sassy yellow trout lilies and rough cinquefoil, whose blooms last only one day and fall to the ground, only to be replaced by another flower the next day.

Hamilton County Park District’s Miami Whitewater Forest with its Timberlakes Trail is Hadley’s choice for wildflower walks in the western part of Hamilton County. Also, walk the half-mile Wildflower Trail in Sycamore Park in Batavia to see several types of trillium.

“The 16,000-acre Edge of Appalachia Preserve in Adams County is owned and managed jointly by the Cincinnati Museum Center and the Ohio chapter of The Nature Conservancy,” says Hadley. “It is the crown jewel of Ohio’s natural areas with its spectacular, diverse population of wildflowers. Many [plants] are rare or unique in the state. Several trails are open to the public, including the famous Lynx Prairie Preserve and The Wilderness Preserve Trail.”

Cheryl Coon, a forest botanist with Wayne National Forest, suggests two trails for superior wildflower views. The eight-mile Vesuvius Trail, in the Ironton Ranger District in Pedro, is “a pretty easy trail to hike” around a lake, she says. The 14-mile Wildcat Hollow Trail, Athens Ranger District in Nelsonville, “is a little more arduous.” Wear waterproof boots, because stream crossings may be necessary on both trails if rain falls. Among the highlights: the federally endangered running buffalo clover and native rhododendrons.

Wildflowers are no less spectacular in the northern half of the state.

“My favorite wildflower hikes are to the Grand River Terraces for the outstanding diversity of spring wildflowers, and the North Kingsville Sand Barrens where the native blue lupine blooms from [about] May 20 into early June,” says Jim Bissell, botanist and coordinator of natural areas for the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, which owns the sites.

“The population is on level sand barrens along the west side of Poore Road in North Kingsville [in Ashtabula County],” he says. “A sign at the entrance of a public trail has an image of native lupine.”

The leaves of the potentially threatened wild blue lupine are the only food Karner blue butterflies will eat in their larvae stage. No lupine, no Karner blues in Ohio. The plant also is known for its fuzzy seed pods that dry and send seeds flying.

Other sand barrens stars include racemed milkwort, with shockingly violet blossoms, and asters.

Bissell and CMNH conservation specialist Stanley Stine lead an annual spring hike to the Grand River Terraces. “The hike is supposed to coincide with the peak flight of the West Virginia White Butterfly,” says Bissell. “That coincides with the spring ephemeral wildflower display that typically peaks from mid-April to mid-May. The butterflies [take nectar from] trillium, violets, toothwort, ginseng, foam-flower and false miterwort.”

Holden Arboretum in Kirtland makes it fairly easy to enjoy wildflowers without taking along a compass and survival pack. From the arboretum’s historic country estate home, Lantern Court, to Pierson Creek Valley and Bole Woods, a continuous layer of wildflowers can be seen. A 90-step outdoor staircase takes visitors to another great viewing area: the Myrtle S. Holden Wildflower Garden.

Horticulturalist Ann Rzepka Budziak says visitors’ traditional favorites include trilliums, marsh marigolds and Virginia bluebells. The Arboretum’s annual Plant Sale, May 4–6, offers wildflowers propagated on site.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ (ODNR) 75 Ohio State Parks and 135 Ohio State Nature Preserves feature wildflowers as diverse as their locations. Choosing the “best” places is as impossible as choosing a favorite wildflower. Who can say wild blue phlox is lovelier than miterwort, whose tiny white flowers look like snowflakes? But Jean Backs, public information section manager, and ODNR naturalists believe these are some of the standouts:

Caesar Creek State Park, Waynesville — Dutchman breeches, trout lilies, jack-in-the-pulpit
Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve, Yellow Springs — red baneberry (with “doll’s eyes” seed pods), limestone savory (a mint plant that grows in a mat-like form) and Virginia bluebells
Lake Hope State Park, McArthur — blood-root, bluet, wild geranium and rare yellow lady’s-slipper found in hidden hollows
Lakeside Daisy State Nature Preserve, Marblehead Peninsula, Ottawa County — only natural United States population of the federally threatened lakeside daisy; blooms early- to mid-May
Hocking Hills State Park, Logan – Dutchman’s breeches, hepatica and harbinger of spring
Shawnee State Park, Portsmouth — dwarf crested and vernal iris, pink and yellow lady’s-slipper
Quail Hollow State Park, Hartville — blazing star (bright pink, spiked flowers; best in July)

“The large-flowered trillium is the largest and most abundant of trilliums. It stretches across the forest floors of Eagle Creek State Nature Preserve (in Nelson Township) in a beautiful white canvas until its petals diminish to faded pink by early June,” says Adam Wohlever, ODNR/DNAP district preserve manager.

“The red trillium, one of my favorites, is not as common. It is also called Wake Robin and Stinking Benjamin, a name derived from the pungent, rotted meat odor of the flower and a misnomer of the chemical benzoin used to make perfumes,” says Wohlever, adding the preserve hosts a Wildflower Walk on Saturday, May 4, at 10 a.m. “Other Ohio species of trillium include the painted trillium, toad-shade or sessile trillium and the rare snow trillium.”

We love the cultivated flowers we plant in gardens. But wildflowers add other dimensions. Wildflowers are unpredictable, independent and one of Ohio’s greatest gifts.

Wildflower Viewing

Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Grand River Terraces, Morgan Township, Ashtabula County (guided hikes only); North Kingsville Sand Barrens, North Kingsville, Ashtabula County. cmnh.org
Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve, Yellow Springs 45387, ohiodnr.com
Eagle Creek State Nature Preserve
, Garrettsville 44231, ohiodnr.com
Hocking Hills State Park, Logan 43138, ohiodnr.com/parks
Holden Arboretum, Kirtland 44094, holdenarb.org
Lake Hope State Park, McArthur 45651, ohiodnr.com/parks
Lake Vesuvius Rock House Trail, Ironton Ranger District, Pedro 45659, fs.fed.us/wildflowers
Lakeside Daisy State Nature Preserve, Marblehead/Marblehead Peninsula 43440, ohiodnr.com
The Nature Conservancy’s Edge of Appalachia Preserve System, West Union 45693, nature.org/edgeofappalachia
Quail Hollow State Park, Hartville 44632, ohiodnr.com/parks
Shawnee State Park, Portsmouth 45662, ohiodnr.com/parks
Wayne National Forest and Wildcat Hollow Trail, Nelsonville 45764, fs.fed.us/wildflowers

Name That Flower

The following are handy companions on a wildflower walk:

Wildflowers of Ohio: Second Edition by Robert L. Henn (Indiana University Press; 2008)
The Midwestern Native Garden by Charlotte Adelman and Bernard L. Schwartz (Ohio University Press; 2011). This book about how to include more native plants in home gardens can also serve as a field guide to wildflowers.