Minnesota wildflowers at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park


Marsh marigolds brighten Hidden Falls at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park by Northfield.

Discover Southern Minnesota’s wildflowers

The trill of a red-winged blackbird swaying atop cattails instantly takes me back to growing up on the southern still-rural edge of the Twin Cities. 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 just before petals unfurled as crisply white as sheets on a clothesline.

Bloodroot is one of the first spring beauties to emerge.

Within a week or two, the hillsides would burst into a carpet of pale lavender and pale pink rue anemone followed by 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.

That land where I grew up is long gone, bulldozed and reshaped for suburban sprawl, but there are many places in Southern Minnesota where you can see a spectacular parade of wildflowers. And with this year’s record-breaking winter and late arrival of spring, you can see the wildflowers in bloom later than usual.

These photos are from a May visit to Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park, often considered one of the best spots in the state to see woodland wildflowers. The park’s 2,884 acres of hardwood forest (remnants of the famed Big Woods biome) sits about 15 minutes south of Northfield tucked into a rolling landscape with ravines and small streams carved by glacial runoff.

Besides a lovely limestone ledge waterfall (that looks deceptively manmade), it’s known for its rare dwarf trout lily (federally listed as endangered) and for carpets of flowers tucked into the woods and along the easy hiking trails.

Birders delight in seeing another species of special concern: the red-headed woodpecker. Keep your eyes peeled, too, for the brilliant colors of rose-breasted grosbeaks, indigo buntings and scarlet tanagers flitting among the maples and basswoods. You can check out a bird identification kit from the main office.

If you want to stay and explore–and soak up the spring birdsongs and peaceful woods–there are 51 campsites available.

Can’t get away for a short road trip? This feature I wrote for the Star Tribune Outdoors Weekend section includes The Eloise Butler Wildflower Sanctuary, the oldest public wildflower sanctuary in the country. This century-old garden lies west of downtown Minneapolis within Theodore Wirth city park. Look for ongoing programs and guided walks throughout the spring and summer.

To enjoy the showy blossoms of orchards, check out this blog feature.

Love touring domestic gardens? Check out the best destination gardens in Minnesota.

Love finding hikes to waterfalls? Here are some of the best waterfalls in Minnesota. Enjoy!