Spot spring wildflowers on hikes in these Milwaukee-area parks


It was a beautiful spring day in Wisconsin, one of the first 60-degree days of the season, and the trails around the Wehr Nature Center in Whitnall Park were buzzing with visitors.

On the accessible boardwalk near Lake Mallard, many visitors had their eyes, binoculars and cameras trained on the top of a tree where a red-tailed hawk perched and preened.

After snapping a few pictures of myself, I pointed my camera at a lower target: a small patch of delicate pink flowers that stood out among the brown leaf litter.

I had spotted patches of purple snow glory earlier in my hike, but this little hepatica was my first native wildflower sighting of the day, and I was giddy at the find. Spring wildflowers, even in small doses like this, always provide extra joy after a long Wisconsin winter.

Hepatica isn’t exactly rare, but it blooms only briefly in early spring. Timing a hike to find it — and other spring ephemera that only bloom for a short time — is like trying to time fall colors. A week or two can make the difference between a few colors and a field of them.

Hunting for spring mayflies is a bit like a scavenger hunt, especially early in the season when there may only be a few pops of color here and there. But early in the season, it’s a kid-friendly search, as bursts of green are relatively easy to spot before the trees break loose and the understory fills in.

Some like hepatica, skunk cabbage and marsh marigold bloom as early as April, while others like trillium, jack-in-the-pupitre and wild violets – Wisconsin’s state flower – the join towards the end of the month and until May. Most grow in wooded areas, with the flowers taking advantage of the sunlight that hits the forest floor before the trees and shrubs steal it away.

You’re bound to find spring mayflies in just about any wooded area in southeast Wisconsin, but here are five places to get you started and what types of flowers to look for in each location. Remember to leave flowers where you find them so other visitors can enjoy them too (and because it’s illegal to pick flowers in Milwaukee and Wisconsin county parks).

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Whitnal Park

Whitnall Park in Franklin, Milwaukee County’s largest park, abounds with spring flowers, from native wildflowers along wooded paths to cultivated flowerbeds at Boerner Botanical Gardens.

One of the first to sprout of the season is skunk cabbage, an unfortunately named plant that can flower while there is still snow on the ground, thanks to its ability to generate its own heat, a process known as name of thermogenesis. It takes its name from the smell it gives off and is distinguished by its white-streaked brown spathe, a cap-like leaf that emerges before the large, bright green leaves.

The brown spathe of a skunk cabbage grows along the Seven Bridges Trail in Grant Park in south Milwaukee on April 21, 2022. The spathe appears before the leaves of the plant, as early as March.

The plant likes to grow in moist areas like bogs and swamps and along rivers and streams. Look for it along the 0.4 mile wetland trail near the Wehr Nature Center.

Other spring flowers to look for in Wehr include hepatica, phlox, violets, and marsh marigolds.

For more, including many cultivated varieties, head to Boerner Botanical Gardens in the northeast corner of the park.

Look for winter aconite – a bright yellow flower with six petals – as early as late March below the Rock Garden and south of the Education and Visitor Center.

Around the visitor center are also beds of tulips and daffodils, which begin to bloom in April. Starting in May, the park’s wild cherry and apple trees will put on their spring display.

Lucille Lingongo, 3, of West Allis, enjoys the colorful tulips at the Boerner Botanical Garden in Whitnall Park on May 13, 2020.

More information: Whitnall Park is free to visit, but there is a $4 parking fee at the Wehr Nature Center, 9701 W College Ave, Franklin. Dogs are not allowed on the trails around the nature center. For more on Wehr, see

Boerner Botanical Gardens, 9400 Boerner Drive, Hales Corners, is free to visit off season. Summer admission (May 1 through October) for Milwaukee County residents is $7 for adults, $5 for seniors, students, children, and those with disabilities. Admission for non-residents is $8 for adults and $6 for children. The gardens are open daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. (last entry at 7 p.m.). To learn more, see

Cudahy Nature Reserve

Nestled along busy College Avenue just south of Mitchell International Airport, this nature preserve doesn’t offer complete silence from the sounds of civilization.

What it offers is a slice of nature you could have all to yourself, and a chance to search for over 160 species native to Wisconsin in one of only three state natural areas in Milwaukee County. (Cudahy Woods State Natural Area).

The trails in this park are part of the Forked Aster Trail System of Milwaukee County Parks. Two trails totaling approximately 1 mile through a hardwood forest that represents what the area looked like before European settlement. A river separates drier forest of oak, cherry, and hickory to the north from wetter old-growth forest of sugar maple, American beech, and further south.

Near the river, look for marsh marigolds, which feature bright yellow flowers that look more like buttercups than marigolds, and leaves that look like water lilies. They grow in April and bloom until June.

Marsh marigold blooms at Cudahy Nature Preserve on April 21, 2022.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, other spring species to look for include hepatica, trout lily, Gleason’s trillium, bloodroot, and spring beauty.

More information: Find the reserve at 501 E. College Ave., Oak Creek. The visit is free. Dogs are not allowed. There is a small car park and carport, but no other facilities. For a map, see

Grant Park

The popularity of the Seven Bridges Trail in Grant Park means lots of feet trampling in areas where they shouldn’t be and less native vegetation than there would otherwise be.

But there’s still plenty of green and splashes of color to be seen in the spring, especially if you branch off from the main trail to the beach.

Skunk cabbage is common along ravines in April. Marsh marigolds and a few non-native garden escapees are not as common but also appear in April: purple and yellow crocuses, small white snowdrops, and purple Siberian squill.

A lone crocus blooms in Grant Park in south Milwaukee on April 21, 2022.

In late April and early May, the aptly named mayapples appear, recognizable by their umbrella-shaped leaves and small white flowers. Also look for trillium, wild geranium, jack-in-the-pupitre and yellow trout lily.

Because the park sits along Lake Michigan, a major migratory route for birds, it’s also a good spot for birdwatching in the spring when migrants like warblers and cormorants mix their calls with residents all over the country. year like woodpeckers and cardinals.

More information: Grant Park, 100 E. Hawthorne Ave., South Milwaukee, is free to visit. Leashed dogs are allowed on the trails, but they are not allowed on the beach. For a map, see

Kettle Moraine State Forest

The dozens of trails that wind through the northern unit of Kettle Moraine State Forest are prime spots to look for spring wildflowers, including hepatica and trillium.

The trillium is one of the most easily recognizable spring flowers; the tri- prefix in their name is a reminder to look for flowers with three white petals and three broad leaves. They are most common in May, but they can start flowering as early as April.

Trillium blooms along a path at the Wehr Nature Center in Whitnall Park on May 13, 2020.

Look for them along any segment of the Ice Age Trail in the forest, including the 13.9-mile Parnell segment. This stretch also crosses the Spring State Natural Area of ​​Butler Lake Flynn, a good place to see marsh marigold.

For more wildflowers in the area, try the Polk Kames State Ice Age Trail Area, which includes the Cedar Lakes segment of the Ice Age Trail. The northern section passes through agricultural fields before heading into dense forest filled with spring wildflowers including trillium, wood anemone, mayapple, violets, jack-in-the-pulpit and shooting stars, according to the Ice Age Trail Alliance guide.

More information: The south trailhead of the Parnell Segment of the Ice Age Trail is at Mauthe Lake Recreation Area, N1490 County Road GGG, Campbellsport. The area requires a state park admission sticker; federal park passes are also accepted. Animals on a leash are allowed.

Find parking for the Cedar Lakes segment of the trail on County Highway NN north of Slinger. The domain is free to visit.

Havenwoods State Forest

The meadows of Havenwoods steal the flower show in July and August, but spring is the time for woodland wildflowers in the state’s only urban forest.

Six miles of trails wind through these meadows and forests as well as pockets of wetlands. In the woods, look for bloodroot in April and May. The flower gets its name from the dark red sap from its roots, which Native Americans used as a dye. The flower is white, however, with eight to 16 petals that open during the day in full sun and close at night.

Bloodroot wildflowers bloom in early spring with a beautiful flower having white petals and numerous golden yellow stamens.

Other spring flowers to look for include spring beauty, trillium, violet, and wild geranium.

More information: Havenwoods State Forest is at 6141 N. Hopkins St.

Havenwoods staff will lead a Wildflower Walk to explore the flowers of the forest from 1:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. on May 21. The one kilometer walk is open to all ages.

A state park admission sticker is not required to visit Havenwoods. Animals on a leash are only allowed on certain trails in the forest; grab a map from the nature center to see where.

Contact Chelsey Lewis at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @chelseylew and @VoyageMJS and Facebook at Journal Sentinel Travel.


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