Fleeting Beauty: Spring Ephemeral Wildflowers

Fleeting Beauty: Spring Ephemeral Wildflowers

There couldn’t be a prettier time of year to be outside. The sun is shining, birds are singing, a warm breeze is blowing, and spring ephemeral wildflowers are in bloom! Eastern North America is home to an incredibly wide variety of wildflowers, and some of the most treasured are the ephemeral “blink and you may miss them” species. 

Ephemeral is an adjective meaning “lasting for a short time; fleeting”. These species grow in the rich soil of our eastern forests, under a canopy of trees. In early spring as soils begin to warm and daylight lengthens, these plants burst forth from their winter slumber, using energy stored the year before to push leaves up through the leaf layer of the forest floor. They are eager to bloom, set seed, and store up energy for next year, all before the trees leaf out completely and block all that precious sunlight. 

Once the canopy has filled in and the temperatures have risen, the above ground portion of ephemeral plants will die back to the ground. They will lie dormant through the hot summer, all but forgotten under the leafy cover of oaks and hickories, until next spring when their time to shine begins anew.

Spring ephemerals come in a stunning variety of shapes and colors. They begin the season with the early-season cutleaf toothwort, Cardamine concatenata, notable for its spray of small white flowers, and its finely cut foliage with toothlike projections on its leaves. Mayapples, Podophyllum peltatum, also bear white flowers, large nodding blooms carried under their umbrella-shaped leaves. 

These earliest bloomers are followed by Virginia bluebells, Mertensia virginica,a big-leafed beauty with pink buds that open into baby blue, bell-shaped flowers. Several red-blooming Trillium species also bloom now. Trilliums are often known as “wake-robins”, since they bloom just as robins and other songbirds are waking from the winter.

Jack-in-the-pulpit, Arisaema triphyllum, has cup-shaped, elaborately hooded green flowers streaked with white or purple. Yellow trout lilies, Erythronium americanum, one of the better-known ephemerals, sport lovely yellow blooms, and are named for their attractive purple and green mottled leaves, which look remarkably like the backs of trout swimming in a sun-dappled stream.The stalks of Sanguinaria canadensis each bear a single round leaf and a single daisy-like white flower. 

Broken stems and roots will drip bright red juice, which earned it the common name “bloodroot”. Bloodroot juice was used as a dye and an insect repellent by native Americans. Blooming towards the end of the spring ephemeral season are celandine poppies, also known as yellow wood poppies, Stylophorum diphyllum, with buttery yellow flowers held over deeply lobed, slightly fuzzy leaves.

While the flowers of ephemerals are fleeting, the individual plants are usually quite long-lived, as well as slow-growing. It can take years for a plant to store up enough energy to bloom. Trout lilies, for instance, can take up to eight years (or more!) to bloom. That is why it is so important not to pick ephemeral wildflowers. A picked bloom will not be able to set seeds, and it may take the plant years to collect enough energy to bloom again. Without seeds, these plants cannot reproduce. If you’d like to add these species to your own garden (and many of them do make wonderful garden plants), purchase nursery-grown plants, and leave the ones in the wild in their spot. There, they will continue to share their fleeting beauty in the spring for generations to come.

By: Jill Maybry