By Tom Uhlenbrock
Missouri State Parks
A little magic is happening in Missouri’s woods. The show will go on through much of April.
After a seemingly endless winter, the sun shining through the leafless trees is warming the forest floor, causing spring wildflowers to awaken. Like little jewels, they poke through the leaf litter and dot the drab landscape with bouquets of white, yellow, pink and blue.
The wildflowers are known as spring ephemerals, meaning they have a short life. While some, such as trout lily, shooting stars and hoary puccoon, hang around for a while, most of the early bloomers disappear within weeks as leaves fill in the canopy and blot out the sun.
Spring wildflower season typically begins in late March and continues through early May. In much of Missouri, mid-April is peak viewing time. Wildflowers in the southern part of the state tend to bloom about two weeks before the same wildflowers bloom in the northern reaches of Missouri.
Many of the earlier bloomers are white and pale pink, making a stark statement on the brown winter landscape. Later, more showy arrivals such as yellow celandine poppies and lilac-to-pink bluebells paint the forest floor in color.
Allison Vaughn, Natural Resource Steward with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, said the first to arrive include harbinger of spring, hepatica, bloodroot and rue anemone. “They’re among my favorites precisely because they’re early bloomers,” she said.
Vaughn compiled a list of 10 trails in Missouri state parks that promise the best spring wildflower shows. Wildflowers flourish in state parks because of the history of prescribed fire that promotes native plant populations throughout various ecosystems.
“Woodlands that are not covered in thick, dense leaf litter tend to have better wildflower displays,” she said.
Here’s the pick of the wildflower walks, and why they are special:
Horseshoe Glade Trail at Johnson’s Shut-Ins: Each spring, the low growing spiderwort that is the signature plant for the park blooms along the trail. Unlike the more common spiderwort found throughout Missouri, the spiderwort on the Horseshoe Glade Trail does not send up a tall flowering stalk. It begins blooming in early April and continues through early May
1,000 Steps Trail at Washington State Park: “This trail probably has the largest collection of celandine poppies and blue-eyed Mary in the state park system,” Vaughn said.
Whispering Pines Trail at Hawn State Park: “There’s no other park where you’ll see a large population of wild azaleas like you can at Hawn,” she said. “Last year, they bloomed around the second and third week of April. The azaleas are found in the uplands along the Whispering Pines Trail.”
Frenchman’s Bluff Trail at Cuivre River State Park: Park Naturalist Bruce Schuette said trout lilies, goldenseal, phlox, wild geraniums and green trilliums can be found along the part of the trail that travels through a creek bottom. Bird’s foot violet, shooting stars, columbine and hoary puccoon bloom in a part of the trail along a high bluff.
Wilderness Trail at Meramec State Park: Like the Frenchman’s Bluff Trail at Cuivre River, the Wilderness Trail also leads hikers through a wide array of native landscapes. Rue anemone, spring beauty, trout lily and toothwort are found on the moist creek bottoms. The open woodlands have phlox, wild geranium and violets.
Swimming Deer and Missouri trails at St. Francois State Park: Mid-April brings an explosion of phlox and bluebells to the park. “These trails have one of the best bluebells shows in the state,” said Jamie Hubert, park naturalist. “They literally carpet the woodland floor. People come from all over the state to see them.”
Nature and Pee Wah trails at Trail of Tears State Park: Ferns and spring wildflowers such as bloodroot are common here. Parts of the park have an air of the Appalachians, with beautiful wildflower displays in the moist, deep coves. The Indian Creek Wild Area, home of the Pee Wah Trail, was burned a few years ago and wildflowers and ferns together make a breathtaking sight.
Coakley Hollow Trail at Lake of the Ozarks State Park: “This is a very diverse trail,” Vaughn said, “extremely rich with woodland wildflowers like bellwort, toothwort, spring beauty, violets and phlox. Glades along the trail harbor healthy populations of bird’s foot violet and Indian paintbrush. Coakley Hollow has been managed with fire for many years, and is a stunning place.”
Bee Trace Trail at Long Branch State Park: Bee Trace is a grassy savanna setting with a long fire history. Prairie plants like downy phlox bloom on the trail each spring around mid-April. “We burned Bee Trace in late fall, so the wildflower display should be great this spring,” said Park Superintendant Dustin Webb.
Spring and Natural Bridge trails at Ha Ha Tonka State Park: “I’d hike both trails, both of these areas are extremely rich,” Vaughn said. “You’ll see Dutchman’s breeches, Jacob’s ladder, phlox, buttercups, woolen breeches. The temperature is cooler in the sinkholes, so the spring ephemeral blooms last longer.”
While warmer weather brings the spring wildflowers out, persistent temperatures in the 80s also cause them to slack off.
“Hot weather is not good for spring ephemerals,” Vaughn said. “The delicate flowers tend to wilt quickly if the days are hotter and drier than normal.”
By late May, phlox tends to be the only early spring wildflower still in bloom.
As the canopy closes, shutting off the light to the forest floor, the show moves out to the more open glades, meadows and stream banks, where the sun-loving summer wildflowers become the stars.