Local Lifestyle

Take a closer look: roadside wildflowers pop out as early spring arrives

by Kate Shunney

Daffodils and snow crocuses are usually the first flowers we see opening up as winter fades and spring draws closer. Those hearty and cultivated flowers spread in gardens and bring the first real pop of color to a wintry garden bed.

But out in the forests and along the sides of our country roads, native wildflowers are also pushing through the collected leaf layer in search of sunlight and heat.

At the same time that daffodils are bursting out into bunches of cheerful yellow, smaller and more delicate flowers are opening on the same schedule.

Slowing down on our first springtime walks will give a better chance to notice the more subtle and low-lying plants have been part of this region’s ecosystem for centuries. Many of our local wildflowers have several names – a scientific classification and a folk name, often based on the characteristics of their leaves or sometimes the practical use of the plant in traditional cultures.


Coltsfoot is a bright yellow, round-faced flower that looks a lot like a dandelion but has a flatter, disk-like face. It’s one of the earliest flowers of the late winter along country roads, growing along ditches and roadside banks in small clumps. They can be widely seen along our roadways at this time of year.


Tussilago farfara was native to Europe and parts of Asia, first seen in America as early as the 1840s. Plant experts with the U.S. Forest Service figure the plant was introduced here for its medicinal uses. The leaves and roots were once dried, crushed or boiled and used to treat coughs and bronchial troubles. Because of concerns about toxins in the leaves, the flowers and plants are no longer widely used this way. 

Cutleaf toothwort

The delicate bloom of the cutleaf toothwort is all over the forest floor in March, but it doesn’t last long. Known as one of the earliest spring ephemerals, the flower is actually a member of the mustard family. It prefers to grow in an area where there is a deep layer of leaf cover and lots of organic matter. The plant spends just a little over a month above ground in the spring. It’s a native woodland perennial.

Cut leaf toothwort.

The name comes from the leaves that are notched or look cut. According to North Carolina plant experts, the Iroquois Indians used the plant for food and ate the roots. The cutleaf toothwort was also used for medicine, to treat heart conditions, colds, headaches and stomach pains. In the animal kingdom, the cut-leaf toothwort is known as a good source of food for mice, and the caterpillars of the West Virginia White butterfly and Mustard White butterfly. Its flowers also provide nectar to local pollinator bees.

Round-lobed hepatica

Another early and delicate native wildflower in our area is the round-lobed hepatica – previously known as an anemone.

This flower, which can be seen in whites and even pale purple, likes to grow on rocky slopes. Steep hillsides along dirt or gravel roads in partial shade are a good place to find them.

Round lobed hepatica.

The plants are native to eastern North America and attract small bees and flies, both pollinators.

One of the hepatica’s common names is liverwort, a reference to the shape of the leaves. Some people thought the name meant the plant could be used to treat liver troubles, but doctors have found no compounds in the plant that bear this out.

For wildflower enthusiasts, the delicate bloom is enough.

As March leads into April, more and more species of wildflowers emerge and displace the late winter varieties. The show continues throughout the summer, making wildflower patrols an ongoing seasonal activity that takes few tools – just a curious eye, some time to walk and a borrowed wildflower guide or plant ID app on a phone.