Lots of flowers bloom in spring, in the fields and on the trees and in the woods, but what makes a flower an “ephemeral”? The term spring ephemeral refers to a certain group of early spring wildflowers that bloom mostly in the woodlands, on the forest floor. Delicate, perennial, and often low to the ground, these flowers take advantage of the warmth and light pouring through the open canopy, poking through early and blooming before the leaves on the trees have emerged. Most plants have the full warm season, from spring until the fall, to go through the whole reproductive process—leafing out, flowering, getting pollinated, turning to fruit and setting seed. These small woodland flowers do it at a much faster pace, hence the term ephemeral—fleeting. Some of them bloom and senesce (die back and go to seed) in just a few short days, but all of them within a very brief window when the forest is still open and full of light. Some spring ephemeral plants you may have seen lately:
Hepatica: one of the first woodland flowers to emerge, these little anemones keep last year’s leaves through the winter, which turn a mottled purple to hold in and reflect heat. In doing so they are able to warm up very, very early, emerge, and bloom just as the winter is creeping out of the woods. A tiny flower, hepaticas come in a range of colour, from white to pale purple to delicate blue.
Bloodroot: a gorgeous poppy family flower, bloodroots are known for having one of the briefest flowering times, often crumbling apart after just a day or so.
Dutchman’s breeches: another sweet poppy family plant, with blossoms like small white pantaloons hanging on a laundry line. They are related to the cultivated and beloved bleeding hearts.
Blue cohosh: just emerging now, blue cohosh snake out of the ground looking more like a fungus than a plant. They bloom early while still small, a tiny, odd, almost unnoticeable flower. These plants persist through the summer and their bright blue berries can be found adorning the top in the early fall.
Trilliums: Depending where you live around here, there are a couple of different Trilliums to discover. A gorgeous flower, with three leaves, three sepals, and three petals, the most common comes in a deep red. But at higher elevations, the painted trillium can be found a little later—white with swatches of bright pink in the centre. Have you seen any other species of trilliums nearby?
Trout Lily: a gorgeous native lily, these plants have distinct mottled pointed leaves that emerge first pointing up, then fold out into two, bird-like wings with a long-stemmed yellow flower in the centre snaking through.
Rue anemone: closely related to hepaticas, these small white flowers have leaves that look a lot like our meadow rues, hence the name.
These small woodland ephemeral wildflowers face many threats in the forest. Some have faced over-harvesting in the past, but now the greatest pressure comes from habitat degradation. Because their blooming window is brief, they already have a significant pressure to be pollinated on time, especially when our springs are damp and pollinator activity becomes disrupted. But heavy deer-browsing, the presence of non-native plants that leaf out early, take up space, and compete for sunlight—Norway maples, for example—these also cause issues. For example, our native toothworts, Cardamine species, are in the mustard family and are closely related to the non-native garlic mustard that has so taken over the woodlands. The toothworts are the natural food source for the caterpillars of a rare native butterfly, the West Virginia White. Because garlic mustard is so similar, the butterflies often mistake those plants for the toothworts, laying their eggs on them instead, causing the caterpillars mostly to die.
Another interesting fact is that many of these ephemerals have seeds with a fatty attachment called an Elaiosome that attracts ants. The ants come and collect the seed, carry it home, eat off the fleshy lipid and then dispose of the seed in their waste piles, which are typically nutrient dense and perfect for helping sprout the little discarded seed. This is one of the tools these plants have developed to facilitate their reproduction and continued place in our native woods.