Spring Wildflowers of the Indian Creek Gorge

The Indian Creek Gorge is a special place. It contains large sections of undisturbed deciduous and mixed forests, excellent floodplain vegetation, and the sights and sounds of Indian Creek’s fast flowing journey towards the Youghiogheny River. In fact, Indian Creek, from the Mill Run Reservoir to its confluence with the Youghiogheny River, is a designated Biological Diversity Area by the Natural Heritage Association. The forested slopes, floodplains, and scour zones of Indian Creek provide habitat for 4 plant species of special concern as well as excellent native woodland plant communities. These woods provide the rich soil and early spring sunlight needed by native woodland wildflowers. Now, in the beginning of April, the gorge is abundant in the diversity and beauty of early blooms. 


Here are some of the native spring wildflowers found right now along the Indian Creek Valley Trail as it travels through the gorge:


White trillium (Trillium grandiflorum)

Purple trillium (Trillium erectum)

Trillium is an iconic spring flower that often blankets rich stream valleys with its beautiful blooms. It’s easy to identify by its 3 flower petals, 3 green sepals, and 3 whorled leaves. The flowers even bloom for around 3 weeks!


White trillium, one of the most common species of trillium, is actually one in the same with the pink trillium flowers you’ll see. The petals turn from white to pink with age! Purple trillium, which is more of a deep maroon color, is another common species found intermixed with the white/pink trillium throughout the gorge.

Carolina spring-beauty (Claytonia caroliniana)

These tiny flowers seem to fill in all of the gaps in larger vegetation within the gorge, growing within moss and on rocks. Carolina spring-beauty is a true spring ephemeral. It quickly blooms before the canopy trees overhead begin to leaf out and take up the sunlight. The flowers open up on warm sunny days and remain closed during cloudy weather or nighttime. The petals have pink lines to guide newly emerged pollinators to the nectar. As soon as they’re pollinated and seed, the Carolina spring-beauty dies down to the ground until next spring.



Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

Bloodroot has a pure white flower, one daintily tucked leaf, and a seemingly out of character name. But if you cut open its roots, it will ooze a crimson sap that resembles blood. Native Americans commonly used this pigment to dye things like baskets and clothing, lending to its other moniker- Indian Paint.


There are a few large patches of bloodroot in the gorge. This large distribution is often created by one ant colony’s distribution of the seeds. Bloodroot seeds contain a fleshy attachment called an elaiosome, which attracts ants. The ants carry the seeds back to their nests, feed the nutritious elaiosome to their larvae, then dispose of the seeds in their ‘trash dump.’ Here, the seeds are protected within the pile until they germinate.

Trout lily (Erythronium americanum)

This showy spring flower is an easy favorite, especially among fishermen! The mottled leaves and speckled flowers of trout lily resemble the pattern on brook and brown trout. These photos show the progression of the flower as its petals fold backwards while it remains nodding downwards.


While trout lily is visited by a variety of insect pollinators, spring weather is too unpredictable to rely on the presence of those pollinators for reproduction. So, trout lily also spreads through vegetative reproduction via small buds budding off of the main bulb. Like bloodroot and many other spring ephemerals, trout lily seeds are distributed by ants. Some trout lily colonies can be as much as 300 years old.



Giant blue cohosh (Caulophyllum giganteum)

Giant blue cohosh is one of the strangest looking plants seen right now in the gorge. It has purple, mostly bare stems, leaves that spread out at the tips, and strange flower structures. The actual flower is just the tiny yellow part you see, but the purple sepals surrounding it serve to draw more attention to it from pollinators. After pollination, it will produce blue berries.


Formerly, giant blue cohosh was considered a subspecies of blue cohosh. The two species only differ in that giant blue cohosh blooms earlier and has purple sepals as opposed to the yellowish sepals of blue cohosh. They have similar properties and a rich history of medicinal uses, especially for women’s health and childbearing.


Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)

Dutchman’s breeches, the flower with arguably the best name, has flowers that resemble pantaloons hanging upside down on a clothesline. The fragrant flowers emerge just as the overwintering queen bumble bees emerge from hibernation. As they fly low to the ground searching for nesting sites, they stock up on nectar. Dutchman’s breeches, with its nodding flowers and long nectar path, are pollinated by early bumblebees since their proboscis is long enough to tap the nectar. Honeybees have a shorter proboscis and can only gather the pollen with their front feet.



Sharp-lobed hepatica (Hepatica nobilis var. acuta)

Hepatica produces delicate white, pink, or lavender flowers on leafless stocks. Its evergreen leaves are three-lobed, bearing resemblance to the three lobes of the liver. For this, hepatica gets its name from the Latin word ‘hepatic,’ relating to liver. The leaves also led to early use by herbalists following the doctrine of signatures, a concept that ‘like cures like’ developed during the 1500s. Because of its resemblance to liver, hepatica was thought to aid in liver ailments though it is seldom used in modern herbalism.



Round-leaved yellow violet (Viola rotundifolia)

This brightly colored violet stands out against the brown leaf litter. The violet family is very diverse, with many yellow, purple, blue, and white species found throughout the Northeastern US.



By John Lynch. Copyright 2020 New England Wild Flower Society.

Two-leaved mitrewort (Mitella diphylla)

Two-leaved mitrewort is often overlooked on account of its tiny white flowers. It requires a closer look to notice its unique snowflake-like fringed flowers. Its leaves come in opposite pairs and are also unique in shape. What a great find!


This is not an exhaustive list of all the wildflowers found in this area. For the next few weeks, the Indian Creek Valley will be colored with a wide variety of early spring wildflowers. What species can you find? 

If you come across a flower you don’t recognize, take lots of pictures of the stem, leaves, and flower, take notes on flower and leaf characteristics, and consider getting yourself a wildflower guide for the area. Remember to respect these delicate flowers and remember to practice Leave No Trace Principles; don’t pick these wildflowers and stick to the trail to not step on them.