The marvels of spring ephemerals
March 8, 2017
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URBANA, Ill. – Spring will be arriving soon, and with the new season comes brand new foliage followed by a burst of flowers. Gardeners poking around the yard may discover plants emerging here and there.

“Some of the earliest of these plants are native spring ephemerals,” notes Nancy Kreith, University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator. She says that ephemerals, or short-lived plants, are often misunderstood and refers to them as the mystery plants of the Eastern U.S. deciduous forest. That is because they seem to emerge suddenly and vanish almost as quickly as they came.

“Gardeners find themselves wondering if they did something wrong,” explains Kreith. “Many of these mysterious plants emerge, flower, set seed, and die back within two months.”

Most ephemerals begin growing in very late winter to early spring before trees develop leaves. During this time, they are able to take advantage of the moist conditions and sunlight hitting the forest floor. Once trees begin growing leaves, many ephemerals enter dormancy and remain unseen until the following spring.

Kreith cautions gardeners not to confuse ephemerals with spring flowering bulbs, such as tulips or daffodils, although they may have similar underground structures. Energy reserves are stored in their fleshy roots, corms, and tubers, and allow ephemerals to grow very quickly as warmer temperatures arrive. One major difference is that many spring ephemerals will completely die back to the ground, unlike the leaves of bulbs, which remain well into late spring and summer. That said, if environmental conditions are favorable, attractive foliage will remain on some ephemerals well into summer.

“For example, when planted in moist shaded areas, the leaves of the native fringed bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia) tend to remain into early summer,” Kreith says.It also goes the other way around: if warmer temperatures are delayed, ephemerals may remain hidden until conditions are just right, as in the case of mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) and celandine poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum).” Kreith notes that celandine poppy can be very aggressive.

The earliest of the ephemerals, emerging in February, is skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). The foul-smelling, tiny yellow flowers held on a spadix generate enough heat to melt surrounding snow and attract flies as pollinators.

Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) is one of the most plentiful of the native ephemerals, forming dense stands from February through May. “It even tolerates mowing,” Kreith says. “The low-growing and grass-like foliage is adorned with bubblegum-pink petals with dark pink stripes.”

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), with their floppy leaves, appear in March. These plants are known for colonizing bottomland soils. The clusters of bell-shaped flowers are nearly erect over the foliage and the plant quickly dies back after blooming.

Prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum), which also appears in woodlands, emerges in May and is the most versatile of the three native trilliums. “Prairie trillium has deep burgundy flowers, while leaves are distinguishable by the dappled light and dark green variations,” Kreith notes. 

Typically blooming around June, white trout lily (Erythronium albidum) has leaves that appear two to four weeks before the flower. The lily-like white flowers grow downward, hanging on a bare stalk over the two green or mottled leaves. “Amazingly, it can take trout lilies up to seven years to get their second leaves,” Kreith points out.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the variety of spring ephemerals,” Kreith says. “Be sure to explore the many plant options before incorporating these into the garden.”

A good place to begin is Illinois Extension’s wildflower directory, found at Beyond researching the internet, Kreith encourages gardeners to take a walk in the woods, notice the first signs of spring, and be inspired to learn the varieties of these early blossoms. Remember these beautiful bloomers not only benefit people with their carpet of colors, they also serve as an important and necessary early food source as wildlife become active after a long, cold winter.