The forest floor comes to life during spring in Northern Michigan, leaving Rebecca Deneau full of inspiration.

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There is a melodic beauty and mystery to the woodland understory as it awakens each spring. Wild leeks push through last year’s fallen leaves. Fern fronds quietly unfold. And the revered trillium stops us in our tracks as we pause to admire her. Breaking free from winter, they emerge together and stretch out toward the day, quietly singing the melody they came to sing.

This time every March, I start my annual countdown to the blooming of the trillium. I set my sights on mid-May, when the forest floor comes alive again. I look forward to it each year with the same enthusiasm my boys share for Christmas, because the blooming of the trillium signals a true end to winter. No more surprise snowfalls. Puffy parkas are shed. The trillium usher in a season of growth, and with the blooms, the hope of a delightful summer ahead.

This anticipation helps me get through the days when I still need my snow boots and ice scraper. It encourages me to notice the daylight waiting around a little longer each evening as we head toward summer solstice. The lakes are beginning to thaw, and the hope of spring tantalizes us with warmer temperatures and sunshine.

To stir my anticipation even further, I spend my days in the studio painting trillium while I daydream about their arrival. Recently, as I was sifting through my photos looking for painting references, I recalled one particularly warm Saturday we had in spring.

Related Read: Searching for more on Spring Up North? Visit our Northern Michigan Spring page.

On a joy ride with the windows down, we were looking for a place to indulge in our picnic dinner before a family hike. My spouse, who loves to explore new places, pulled into a muddy parking lot near some unknown trails. I slowly turned to him and said, “Ok, we can eat here, but I don’t really want to hike here.”

The trillium had started their yearly show, and I wanted a trail with a good view. I had heard tales of glorious trillium about 30 minutes farther north and I felt determined to find them.

Just like morels and ramps, you have to search for trillium. They grow along woodland trails and hillsides and love rich, acidic soil. Thankfully, being mostly white, they stand out and are much easier to discover than morels.

Painting of trillium in Northern Michigan

Photo by Scott Wilson/Vada Color

After our picnic, Dave decided to check out the path next to said muddy parking lot that led up the side of a hill. Stubbornly holding out for a more inviting trail, I stayed near the car and waited for him to return. As he reached the top, he began waving his arms, exuberantly signaling for us to join him. I sighed, gathered my boys and reluctantly began hiking up the trail.

As I rounded the corner near the top, the sun hovered just above the horizon and streamed through the trees, lighting up the forest floor. And that’s when I noticed them—trillium, by the hundreds, creating a fresh ephemeral blanket on the crest and spilling down the entire hillside.

Perfectly illuminated by the evening sun, they were radiant white, freshly unfurled into their full triune beauty. A soft breeze swept through like fingers, fluffing out their opalescent petals. It was magnificent. That evening we continued down the winding path through the forest, happily enjoying our front row tickets to the spring show that proved to be so much more than even I hoped for.

Days like that deeply inspire my work. When I paint, I try to capture not only a place, but also the way a place makes me feel. I use brushstrokes and colors to express the joy I experience when stumbling upon a hillside of trillium or biking along trails near orchards and dunes. I use my senses to ground me and help me become fully present to the moment—to the way the light falls, all the shades of white that make up a trillium and the feeling of sand, water and air on my skin.

Because the truth is, these are more than places to us. These forests and lakes are home to our collective memories—of family hikes along familiar paths, of sweet summer days spent with friends on the beach. These shores have become the background to our lives, making them even more beautiful.

And really, the long winter we experience up here in the north just serves to increase our anticipation for summer. We appreciate our warmer days so much more because we have to wait for them.

So, let’s start the countdown together. The trillium are coming soon to usher in all the goodness of new life. The sight of them spilling over hillsides and sprinkled along paths will signal the end of a long winter nap—a woodland garden party to kick off the start to summer. Beautiful things are ahead, my friends. May we have eyes to see them.

Woman painting on a canvas

Photo by Ben Law

Rebecca Deneau is a fine art oil painter, poet and ponderer based in Traverse City. When she’s not painting, you can find her in the woods or on the lakeshore exploring with her family.

Photo(s) by Ben Law