What’s first to bloom in the spring at Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden? It could be a tree, but let’s just focus on the flowering forbs. When Ken Avery became Gardener in 1959 he started to track the flowering dates of the early spring plants and later published a list of the earliest date and the latest date. Here is a link to Ken's data (PDF). Cary George succeeded Ken and continued to keep track. Note: Due to geography and various micro climates, the dates at Eloise Butler might not coincide with your back yard. Based on the data they published, here are the EARLY FIVE in order of earliest bloom date.
Earliest - March 13. Latest - April 19. Average - April 5
This is a plant of bogs, marshes and stream banks. The flowers on this plant are on a spadix (knob shaped cluster) contained within a spathe, which on this plant is mostly purple-brown and mottled with green. After flowering this part, which forms the seeds, is surrounded by the roundish large basal leaves. Flowers on the spadix are 4-part, tiny, and green. The fruit that forms is a cluster of berries, bluish black in color.
It has been observed that temperatures within the buds have been recorded as high as 27 degrees F. above the outside air temperature. Although the marsh in the Garden lacked this plant initially, it was one of the first plants Eloise Butler brought in.
Eloise dug some up near the Lake Street Bridge in Minneapolis and planted them on June 3, 1907. The first common name undoubtedly comes from the flower’s offensive smell. The species name, foetidus, means “evil smelling.” The foul odor from the parts notwithstanding, there were medicinal uses for the plant.
Earliest - March 22. Latest - April 22. Average - April 7
This is the earliest of our trilliums, frequently poking its small head above the leaves while snow still surrounds it. The flower is solitary on a tall stalk above the whorl of 3 leaf-like bracts; the stem has no true leaves as it is an extension of the underground rhizome. The flower stem slightly droops and the total height of the plant rarely exceeds 6 inches. Eloise Butler brought in the first plants in 1910. Snow Trillium is native only to the SE corner of Minnesota and in the wild it is now on the Minnesota DNR “Special Concern” list.
Like many of the Trillium species, this one has medicinal qualities. Extracts made from the root have been used to treat diarrhea and dysentery.
Earliest - March 24. Latest - April 24. Average - April 17
This plant makes the early list because it grows in large patches in the NW corner of the Woodland Garden where the hillside faces the the sun. This is one of the first areas in the Woodland Garden to be free of frost.
The white 5-part flowers are 1/2" wide, in a small cluster or single. The color is on the sepals, it has no petals and the leaflets are in 3's. It rarely grows above 12” high but it forms large clumps. Eloise Butler's records show that she first obtained this plant in 1908 from the Minnehaha area of Minneapolis (near Ft. Snelling).
Earliest - March 27. Latest - April 24. Average - April 17
Of all the early ephemeral spring flowers that we wait to see, surely the Hepatica is on everyone’s list. The small flowers have no petals but instead the 6 to 12 sepals are colored in shades of pure white to pinkish and even to bluish blush. They poke up early, just above their old dried dead leaves which have over-wintered.
Neither was present in this section of Glenwood Park that became the Wildflower Garden, so Eloise Butler imported them from various places around the cities and state. In her time a common name for the plant was “Liverwort” and the plants were placed in the “Crowfoot” family, which today is called the “Buttercup” family. Eloise wrote in 1911: “It seems somewhat incongruous to associate a name so musical and a flower so beautiful with anything so prosaic as the liver. Yet Hepatica is “liver” in Greek, and some herbalist, long ago, made the comparison, when he saw the three-lobed leaf.”
Earliest - March 31. Latest - April 28. Average - April 15
On our five plants, this is the only one that was growing on the land that became the Garden. Eloise Butler described the plant in 1911: "Who does not know the bloodroots - babes in the wood - each closely wrapped in the swaddling blanket of a quaintly fashioned grayish-green leaf? As the leaf unrolls the flower bud is disclosed, en-sheathed in two thin, pale yellowish green sepals, which fall as the snow white corolla expands. The petals, some eight to twelve, are evanescent and will not endure rough handling or a long journey.
Hence let us leave them to light up the woodland. The flower passes quickly from infancy to maturity. Presently nothing is left but the seed pod. But the leaf continues to grow lustily. It is an attractive feature with its odd lobation and prominent reddish veins. The red fleshy subterranean stem is the origin of the name bloodroot.”
This plant has an extensive history of folk medicine and pharmacological use. While all parts of the plant are poisonous in quantity, the root (a rhizome) is of use for medicinal purposes by trained persons.