Woodland Phlox (Phlox divaricata)

This wildflower is in my top ten. Reasons? It blooms in gorgeous shades of blue violet. It spreads across a wide expanse in the rich woodland creating masses of showy flowers. On top of that, it’s one of our first flowers in spring and can usually be found in bloom from the end of March to the end of April.

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A sea of blue on the woodland floor

My first sighting of Phlox divaricata was on horseback, We climbed the bank of the furthest creek on the property and descended into a sea of the most heavenly blue. It was simply breathtaking.  After my ride, I returned, camera in hand and have been struggling ever since to capture what I saw and felt with photography.  This is no easy task. The delicate fan shaped petals sway with the slightest breeze. The flowers are almost never stationary and I have taken more blurry pictures of Woodland phlox than any other plant on Ozarkedge.

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This light and airy plant dances with every slight breeze giving me lots of pictures like those on the left!

Latin Name/Common Name- The word Phlox has a Greek origin and means flame. I’ve read that this likely refers to the shape of the flower cyme at the top of the stem. That’s a bit hard for me to picture. I think it more accurately describes the way the flowers dance in the breeze, like dancing flames in a fire.

Divaricata is Latin for spreading or divergent and this likely refers  to the spreading nature of the plants across the woodland floor or the spread of the flower cyme atop a single plant. The common name, ‘Woodland phlox’ simply describes where to look for this lovely plant.

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Cyme with multiple flowers and buds atop a single stem 

Bloom Color- Most Woodland phlox produce flowers of lavender blue like the picture on the left. There are usually a few plants producing flowers of pale blue (center) as well as some that have a more reddish purple tone (right).

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Colors range from purple, pale blue and the more typical lavender blue

Description- The stem and leaves are densely pubescent (I’ve read that some may be sparsely pubescent, but all plants I’ve seen have are densely hairy). The leaves are opposite and lanceolate. They are sessile, clasping the stem at its base. The plants are about 10-20 inches in height. The leaves emerge early March or late February and disappear mid summer after flowering and setting seed.  Woodland phlox can create large drifts of flowers as it spreads through leafy shoots that crawl across the ground and form root at nodes.

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Macro view showing the dense pubescence of the stem and leaves

Both fertile (flowering) and infertile (non-flowering) shoots are produced. The infertile shoots have more rounded tips and are less densely hairy compared to the fertile shoots.

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Infertile (more rounded leaf tips) and Fertile (more pointed leaf tips) shoots of Phlox divaricata

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Early bud and ciliate foliage

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This bud is just about to open

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Macro view showing glandular pubescence

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Each plant has many flowers

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Woodland phlox in full bloom contrasting with moss at base of oak tree

The petals are fused together at the flower base and a narrow throat holds the 5 stamens and pistal.  The stamens and pistal are recessed and not easily visible.

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Tiny  particles of yellow pollen are seen in this macro view

Bloom Time- Depending on the weather, I find Phlox divaricata blooming from late March through early May.

Habitat- Low, rich woods with dappled sunlight are the typical habitat of Phlox divaricata. This is also a favorite habitat of Toxicodendron radicans – our native poison ivy. In fact, it grows so thickly in the low woods where I first found Phlox divaricata on Ozarkedge that we’ve given that spot the nickname, ‘poison ivy valley’.

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Woodland phlox growing in moist woodland habitat

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Aerial roots help identify the vine of Poison Ivy climbing this stately oak. Note the Phlox divaricata on the woodland floor.

What’s Growing Nearby?- Buckeye, buttercups and bellworts are all growing and blooming alongside Woodland phlox. It’s amazing to me how nature combines colors to create such lovely combinations. Other spring ephemerals that can be found in bloom nearby include Rue anenome, Sanguinaria canadensis and Trillium recurvatum.

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Nature creates her own beautiful pallete by mixiing Ranunulus hispidus (Hairy buttercup)  and Phlox divaricata

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 Uvularia grandiflora (Large bellwort) and Phlox divaricata

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Young trees of Aesculus parvia (Red buckeye) with bold red flowers lying adjacent to the soft blue purple Phlox divaricata

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Rue anenome (white) with Phlox divaricata

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Sanguinaria canadensis (Bloodroot) briefly overlaps the bloom time of Woodland phlox, usually ending early April. Here, one last petal to fall.

Endangered List- The USDA Plants database lists Phlox divaricata as Endangered in New Jersey.  Click here to go the USDA site. You may need to select the Legal Status tab to view the latest information on the plight of our lovely Woodland phlox.

NatureServe lists our lovely Phlox divaricata as Imperiled in North Carolina and Presumed Extirpated in South Dakota. It is Apparently Secure in Iowa and Secure in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia. The rest of the states comprising her native habitat are Not Ranked/Under Review. This includes Arkansas. Click here to go directly to the site.

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Interesting Tidbits- What a shame that this plant is becoming so scarce. It’s not only beautiful, it is a host plant for many butterflies-  swallowtails, grey hairstreaks and western pygmy blues. It’s also a food source for rabbits, voles and deer.