What are Spring Ephemerals?
After a long winter, gardeners are eager to get out of their houses and into their gardens. In the stark, tawny woodlands of early spring, emerging through the fall leaf litter, little green shoots and tiny, delicate blossoms decorate the forest floor. These small, dainty plants, often grow in beds of moss and leaf litter where larger plants will not easily crowd them. Known as spring ephemerals, they are among the first plants to pop up in spring and the first to flower. They emerge early to take advantage of the sunlight that penetrates through the bare branches of the deciduous woodland.
Usually when thinking about spring ephemerals, the classic Eurasian species come to mind — tulips, daffodils, crocuses, hyacinths, and grape hyacinth. They emerge in early spring, flower soon after, and dye back to dormancy by early to mid-summer. Underground lies a bulb, corm, or other storage organ that patiently waits for next year to start the process over again. These species are popular and easy to grow, but they are only a few of the many species available and none of them is native.
In eastern North America, where hardwood-deciduous forests once dominated the landscape, a beautiful bounty of ephemerals abound!
Our Native Ephemerals
Moist to average sites, shady
One of the first spring blooming ephemerals is yellow trout lily (Erythronium americanum), a 4”-6” tall plant with a few spotted leaves and sweet scented, nodding yellow blossoms that resemble miniature lily blooms. Trout lilies are often found near streams in moist soils.
One of the few native blue perennials is Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica). Their large, soft-green leaves and bright blue flowers appear in early-mid spring, withering away by summer. They grow from rhizomes (as opposed to bulbs or corms, like most of the mentioned species).
Eastern shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) is a bulb with an umbel of white blossoms similar to nightshade blooms, but larger and hanging downwards.
Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) one of our most unusual ephemerals, sports a striped, green pitcher-like flower that can be compared to that of a calla lily. Eventually this gives way to a cluster of red berries on a dried stalk. This species is dioecious, having male and female flowers on separate plants. Only the female plants produce berries. Interestingly, the plants are known to spontaneously change sex depending on the dynamics of their own population.
Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) is another rhizomatous woodland ephemeral that can spread to form large colonies in moist, shaded gardens. Mayapples have deeply lobed, glossy leaves and white blooms under their leaves that lead way to a small fruit like a tiny apple. A variety of wildlife feeds on the ripe fruit, including some human-foragers
Average to Drier Sites
Virginia Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) and sharp-lobed hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba) both feature small, pink flowers in early spring and are perfect additions to rock gardens. Rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides) is a long-blooming ephemeral; among the earliest to start blooming but often still blooming well into early June; its white flowers stand atop of 6-9” stems with dainty leaves that flutter in light breezes.
Trilliums, perhaps some of the most valued and sought-after native spring ephemerals, vary in color from red (Trillium erectum) to white (Trillium grandiflorum) and even yellow (Trillium luteum). They are the all-stars of the spring ephemerals, featuring three colorful petals atop beautifully arranged leaves. They prefer slightly acidic soils and a shady spot in the garden.
Ephemerals that creep around to form an early spring groundcover are Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) and squirrel corn (Dicentra canadensis). These closely related species arise from tiny corms that look like corn kernels underground, and have delicate, fern-like foliage with hanging white flowers similar to bleeding hearts.
A popular spring ephemeral for foragers and wild-food enthusiasts are wild ramps (Allium tricoccum). These wild onions appearv similar to small leeks, with broad flat leaves. The plants sprout in early spring, and the leaves die back in late spring, followed by a short blooming period. A scape (flower stalk) emerges after the leaves begin to die back and a small umbel of white blossoms opens.
Bloodroot’s (Sanguinaria canadensis) large white blossoms with yellow centers are reminiscent of garden anemones. It spreads by underground rhizomes and can form colonies. It is especially useful under deciduous trees, or tucked in with shorter perennials that will fill in after the bloodroot goes dormant.
A few other popular native spring ephemerals include wild hyacinth (Camissia scilloides), common hepatica (Hepatica nobilis), Carolina spring beauty (Claytonia caroliniana), and wood poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum).
Sundial lupine (Lupinus perennis) is sometimes considered a summer ephemeral because of its later bloom period. It blooms in late spring/early summer and fades away by mid-summer. This beautiful, small species of lupine with lavender-blue flowers is a legume and nitrogen fixer. It can thrive in poor soils with excellent drainage and can be found in dry and rocky environments such as steep banks or barrens.
While we try to keep all of these plants at the nursery, our availability changes throughout the season—best to check for these species very early in the season! Coming soon – Part Two, The ecological role of Spring Ephemerals, and Part Three, Using Spring Ephemerals in your Garden.