“April,” wrote the poet T.S. Eliot,” is the cruelest month.”
Would someone who walked the DuPage River Greenway this April believe that? I don’t think so. By early April the Greenway had earned its name; it was indeed green. On the warmer days, April was a delight, and the Greenway was the perfect place for a treasure hunt—a hike looking for spring wildflowers.
Some early flowers bloom while trees are still bare and sun shines through the branches, then seem to disappear when the woodland becomes shaded. If you don’t catch a glimpse of them soon after they begin to bloom, you have to wait until next year.
Here are some of flowers I found—and photographed—in bloom along the Greenway or on the grounds of Hidden Oaks Nature Center between April 3 and April 10:
- Dutchman’s Breeches. Someone with a sense of humor gave this small flower its name because each blossom is shaped like a pair of pantaloons turned upside down. You can almost imagine that miniscule medieval Dutch elves have washed their white breeches and hung them on the plant to dry. Dutchman’s breeches are toxic. Cattle who eat them stagger or stumble; hence, the alternate name, Staggerweed.
- Virginia Bluebells. In his Garden Book in 1766, Thomas Jefferson described this flower as “a bluish colored, funnel-formed flower.” Virginia bluebells are native to Illinois, but were not found near Hidden Oaks, so some were planted. You may spot them if you walk up the hill between the Greenway and the Nature Center.
- White Trout Lily. The trout lily probably got its name because its fish-shaped, mottled leaves look a little like brook trout. Also, it blooms about the time the trout-fishing season begins. For the first couple of years, a trout lily grows only one green and green-grey leave. In subsequent years, it grows two. Only after six or seven years will it produce a bloom. The flower, which hangs from a central stem, is somewhat bell-like
- Jacob’s Ladder. Compound leaves, composed of alternate, ladder-like leaflets, are the source of the name of this lovely blue flower. The little bell-shaped flowers grow on a flexible stem that rises above these leaves—and sometimes slump toward the ground.
- Violet. The common blue violet is the state flower of Illinois. It is one of about 80 different kinds of violets growing in the United States. Violets are also found in Europe and Asia. Several varieties make their home along the Greenway. The violet (or viola) can be very aggressive. I made the mistake of transplanting a few blue violets from my grandparents’ home in Iowa to my home in Bolingbrook. They are trying to take over the entire yard and garden, and are harder to control than dandelions.
- Shooting Star. The shooting stars I saw at Hidden Oaks Nature Center are white; elsewhere you might find pink ones. Shooting stars bloom for about a month. Several blossoms grow from the same stem, but they don’t always bloom at the same time.
- Prairie Trillium. The name “trillium” comes from the fact that each mature plant has a single flower with three petals which blooms above a circle composed of three leaves. The bloom of the prairie trillium is reddish-brown. Another trillium with white blooms is also native to Illinois, but I have not seen any blooming along the Greenway. If you see a trillium with its leaves partly eaten off, deer are the likely culprits. Some scientists believe that a trillium seed can pass through the digestive tract of a deer, be dropped in a new location, and start a new plant there.
- Buttercup. The bright yellow, cup-shaped blossom gives the buttercup its name. Its seeds are sometimes eaten by small animals. There are several varieties native to Illinois.
- Woodland Phlox. This blue-violet phlox is unusual in that it produces not only stems with blooms but also infertile shoots. The infertile shoots serve an important function; they store energy in the roots which is used for the production of next year’s flowers.
- Cutleaf Toothwort. The toothwort gets its name from the tooth-shaped segments of its root stalk, not from the little blossoms with their lance-shaped petals. The cutleaf is the only toothwort native to Illinois.
Some of these wildflowers are endangered by garlic mustard, which is one reason the staff at Hidden Oaks Nature Center elicits the help of girl scouts and others to uproot that invasive species.
The words of the Welsh poet, William Henry Davies, are closer to the truth of an April day on the DuPage River Greenway than those of T.S. Eliot. In his poem, “April Charm,” Davies wrote that on a spring day, “One breath outdoors takes all my cares away.”