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Three Yellow Spring Flowers.

May 4, 2013

Winter Cress


Golden Ragwort

When I first started looking at wildflowers here in Ohio, I remember getting some of them confused with each other.  This is embarrassing, but it goes with the territory when you are learning to identify new things, since none of us was born an expert at anything.  Apparently I’m not the only person to be confused this way.  One of the nifty tools that WordPress provides for bloggers is information on what search terms led readers to particular posts.  ‘Yellow wildflowers spring’ with the occasional ‘Ohio’ thrown in has led more than a few people to my truly humble site.  Back when I first started this blog, I did it in part because I wanted to learn more about the natural world, not because I was some kind of authority.  This whole experience is a ‘let’s learn as we go along’ type of thing, and fortunately I’m learning more as time passes.  You pick up things that are of interest to you.

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An Ohio roadside in the spring

So, here we are in the spring again, and I’ve noticed those now-familiar yellow blooms coming up along the roadsides this past couple of weeks.  So I figured I’d take a look at 3 of the more common plants with yellow flowers that are easy to spot this season, and how to tell them apart from each other.  There are other yellow plants of course- including the abundant Dandelion profiled a couple weeks back- but we’ll save the other less common ones for some future post when I’m running out of easy subjects 😉

I ask your pardon for my concentration on the identifying marks that these plants have- that’s the way my mind works, and besides, the photos will show how handsome these plants are!

Winter Cress

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Apart from the abundant Dandelion, probably the first yellow spring flower along the roads one notices here in Ohio is Winter Cress, also known as Yellow Rocket.  This plant is a member of the Mustard family, which means that like all Mustard species, it has a distinctive 4 petals on each flower.  It likes growing in disturbed areas and along paths.

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Winter Cress often has uniquely shaped leaves that clasp the stem.  But the easiest way to identify this plant is by its clusters of light yellow flowers with 4 petals, each on a mini-stalk at the end of a main stalk.

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The overall appearance of Winter Cress is bushy, with many blooms.  Since it tends to be the earliest of the taller yellow plants, it’s a sign to me that spring is truly here, and its pleasant color heralds many other wildflowers to come.


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This plant loves drainage ditches

There’s another yellow spring plant that particularly enjoys wet areas.  This is Butterweed, a member of the Aster family, which means its daisy-like flowers will have many petals.

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Butterweed has a thick stem terminating in a cluster of flowers.  Its leaves are large and coarsely lobed.  The stem reminds me of Wild Parsnip’s squat, coarse appearance.

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A close look at the flowers definitely reminds one of Asters, though Asters typically bloom in the late summer and through the autumn, and they aren’t bright yellow .  This plant is usually found in damp areas, and fields or ditches with standing water often are prime habitats.  Its blooming season is often brief but prolific.  The wetter the better!

Golden Ragwort

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There’s another yellow spring wildflower that’s a member of the Aster family- Golden Ragwort.  This plant can easily be confused with Butterweed, since its flowers look almost identical.

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Golden Ragwort will often be found along wood edges and in meadows.  One way to distinguish it from Butterweed is its thinner stem.

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Another identifying mark is the smaller sparse leaves.  It will have larger leaves at the base of the plant, though these may be hidden in grass.  The whole plant has a delicate appearance.  There are other Ragworts that differ in minor ways with each other, but this one is quite common.

All three of these spring wildflowers attract insects, who are undoubtedly happy to see them in the spring.  Winter Cress is eaten by animals, but both Butterweed and Golden Ragwort are somewhat toxic and avoided by many creatures.

There’s something about the warmth of yellow blooms, especially when they appear in the spring.  They are happy signs that the drab winter scenery has been banished for many months.  These three plants will be easy to spot this month if you’re out for a stroll or a drive in Ohio.

29 Comments leave one →
  1. May 5, 2013 12:51 am

    I think the reason most of us blog is that writing it down and sharing it forces us to explore further, to learn more; even if at times you believe no one is listening.

  2. May 5, 2013 1:29 am

    Beautiful post, I can’t wait for more flowers to bloom in our area!

  3. May 5, 2013 7:08 am

    A sunny and informative post!! 🙂

  4. May 5, 2013 7:29 am

    I was only thinking yesterday how most of the flowers that I’m seeing around me in early spring are yellow, and I don’t know why that is. Yes there are some whites and purples, but its mostly yellow – I’ll have to look into that. Anyway I very much enjoyed looking at your Ohio spring flowers as a contrast to the ones we get here in Wales, thanks

    • May 5, 2013 9:30 pm

      Many thanks, Mike! You know, that’s a great question about the prominence of certain colors. I wonder if it has something to do with insect vision, which is of course different than ours. Flowers are designed to attract pollinators, and maybe yellow is a rather visible color for butterflies and bees?

      • May 6, 2013 3:22 pm

        That could be it, there must be some research on this, I’ll have a rummage and let you know if I find anything interesting! All the best, Mike

    • May 9, 2013 1:41 pm

      Cool! Sounds like a worthwhile project 🙂

  5. May 5, 2013 9:15 am

    I have to agree with Charlie-when one of us learns we all learn. I’ve been looking at wildflowers for a long time and still see plenty that I can’t identify without a book.
    We have winter cress blooming but I haven’t seen golden ragwort or butterweed. I’m not sure that they grow here, but I’ll be watching for them.

    • May 5, 2013 9:32 pm

      I agree- Charlie nailed it, Gardener. And it’s always interesting to me how different the wildflower scene can be a few hundred miles away.

  6. May 5, 2013 9:36 am

    Tracy, I always depend on you for your details on wildflowers, as we share many of the same ones – I have learned so much from you! And you are right; as you work to inform others, you educate yourself as well. A wonderful aspect of blogging!

    • May 5, 2013 9:34 pm

      Many thanks, Lynn! I’ve learned a lot from starting this blog, and if others can learn a few things, that’s very worthwhile.

  7. May 6, 2013 10:08 am

    A lovely burst of yellow sunshine! The ragwort looks familiar but I’m not sure about the other two. Your countryside is so colourful in spring!

  8. May 6, 2013 11:50 pm

    I like the warm yellows that signify spring has arrived. It’s like having our very own sunshine. Thanks for showing us how to identify them.

  9. May 8, 2013 9:55 am

    Thank you for explaining and illustrating the differences between these three cheerful, sunny wildflowers!

  10. May 9, 2013 7:36 pm

    Hi Seasons, Beautiful wildflowers all. I especially like your photographs. Have a wonderful Friday tomorrow!

  11. May 15, 2013 10:34 pm

    Hi. Our early spring yellow flower is Coltsfoot (Tussilago), which looks like Dandelion but has no leaves early in the year. Yellow is such a hopeful color. Thanks for the tour! Jane

    • May 17, 2013 12:14 pm

      Thanks Jane! There’s a park in the area that has a couple of patches of Coltsfoot that can be seen thriving in the spring- other than that, I’ve run into very little of this interesting plant locally. However, when I was out at Salt Fork State Park in eastern Ohio last month, there was a lot of it there.

  12. pauline permalink
    May 28, 2015 11:42 am

    Yes, a yellow tall wildflower that has taken to my front yard (in May) in southeast OHIO brought me to your blog.. 4 petals with a “cress” type leaf 3-4 ft.tall. Has me baffled so the search continues. But it did lead me to your photos…the birds and turtles and heron and….beautiful and thanks!

  13. Marcia Barnhart permalink
    April 23, 2017 5:06 pm

    Thank you so much. I was trying to figure out both winter cress and butterweed.

    • April 23, 2017 9:59 pm

      You’re welcome, Marcia! Glad to help! I know how hard it was to tell these plants apart when I first looked at them.


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