The trill of a red-winged blackbird swaying atop cattails instantly takes me back to growing up on 12 acres of hilly woods between Prior Lake and Savage. April and May offered a daily scavenger hunt for new clusters and carpets of spring wildflowers.
Bloodroot emerged first, poking through the musty leaf litter beneath still-bare oak and basswoods. Muted green leaves curled protectively around bloodroot flower buds like a toddler’s hands cupped in prayer.
I learned early not to pick the flowers, which would die as fast as dandelions and ooze a red-orange sticky sap. Left alone, the plant unfurls petals as crisply white as sheets on a summer clothesline. Within a week or two, the hillsides would burst into a carpet of pale lavender and pale pink rue anemone and a profusion of violets. By May, I’d look for trillium, Jack in the pulpit, violets, spiderwort and a rare patch of wild orchis with its tiny cluster of small white and purple orchids on each stem.
Most of Minnesota’s woodland flowers bloom from April through May, with a few exceptions such as lady’s slipper orchids blooming in late June. That makes now an ideal time to see Mother Nature’s annual wildflower show at parks throughout the state or right in the heart of the Twin Cities with guided walks at Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary.
The nearly 15-acre site celebrates its 107th year this spring and claims to be the oldest public wildflower sanctuary in the country. It’s also part of the more than 750-acre Theodore Wirth Park west of Minneapolis in Golden Valley.
“Eloise Butler was a lover of nature at a very young age,” says Susan Wilkins, garden curator. “She and her sister Cora loved to roam the woods of Maine.”
That love of nature inspired Butler to teach botany in Minneapolis. By 1907, she and fellow botanists had petitioned the city to preserve three acres for a botanic garden that encompassed bog, meadow and hillsides.
The sanctuary opens every April with close to 60,000 visitors wandering its pathways through mid-October. In spring, they’re on the lookout for trout lilies (with leaves speckled like the fish), delicate bluebells, the sunshine yellow of marsh marigolds, tiny shooting stars and striped spring beauty, buttercups, wild ginger, distinctive Jack in the Pulpit and aptly named Dutchman’s breeches among its more than 500 wildflower species.
Butler was the garden’s curator by 1911, bringing in plants from across Minnesota and also from other regions of the country. Even today, the wildflower sanctuary features 10 species of trillium of all sizes and shades from purple and red to yellow and white, versus only a handful of trillium native to Minnesota.
No need driving to northern Minnesota’s bog country to see the state flower, the most elegant example of Minnesota’s 43 orchid species. Showy lady’s slippers unfurl bridal-white petals and a streaky bubble gum lip at the wildflower sanctuary. Others bloom in shades of yellow.
You won’t catch lady’s slippers yet, but Mother’s Day weekend is considered one of the best times of year to visit wildflower gardens. Besides the beauty of flowers, birds also are at their peak, migrating through, building nests and enthusiastically serenading sweethearts. At the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden, the birds’ warbles, trills, chirps and full-blown songs provide the musical backdrop to walks through wetland, upland oak savanna and woods.
And the trees aren’t fully leafed out, making it easier to spot woodpeckers, warblers, orioles, goldfinches and ruby-crowned kinglets. If you need a nature guidebook or binoculars, ask about borrowing one of the sanctuary’s new adventure packs.
The meandering trails are in total less than 1 mile, with the typical visit lasting 45 to 90 minutes — longer if you stop to study the plants, Wilkins says. Many of spring’s wildflowers are considered ephemerals — fragile, fleeting plants that emerge, flower, go to seed and disappear within six to eight weeks.
It’s been at least 20 years since the land I grew up on was flattened and filled in for county roads and suburban sprawl, but I still yearn for those long-ago spring walks beneath a strong sun with new discoveries around every bend.
It’s good to know there’s a city sanctuary that preserves the daily show of wildflowers. They dot the woods with color, like Mother Nature’s confetti, celebrating the end of winter.
Lisa Meyers McClintick (LisaMcClintick.com) is a freelance travel writer based in Minnesota.