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Native Spring Ephemerals

3 Dec 2021 12:00 AM | Brenda Peshak

Dutchmans Breeches

Catch Ephemerals in Early Spring

A walk in the woods in early spring can reward you with the sight and smell of some of nature’s loveliest—but fleeting—floral treasures—the native spring ephemerals. These beauties have a short above-ground presence. As soon as the air begins to warm and before the trees leaf out, they poke their heads out, form leaves and flowers, set seeds, then die back, retreating below the ground for another year. This process may take anywhere from a few weeks to a month or so, depending on the plant and the season. Because they don’t last very long, they’re called “ephemerals”—and they’re some of our favorite sights in early spring.

Although these species prefer the moist, organic soil of the the forest floor, you can have them in your garden if you can re-create native conditions. Place your purchased plants in soil you’ve improved with liberal additions of compost (or even potting soil) in semi-or-dappled shade and ensure adequate moisture while they’re growing. No need to water after they’re gone dormant; however, keep the soil cool and moist with a mulch of chopped leaves, straw, chipped bark, or similar. Avoid peat moss as a top mulch, as it forms a crust water cannot penetrate.

Avoid Insecticides Near Ephemerals

If you do plant them, you’re helping out the early-season pollinators. Because there’s very little in bloom in early spring, bees, bee flies (especially Bombylius major), halictid bees (including green metallic bees), and muscid and syrphid flies depend on ephemerals for nectar. Likewise, ephemerals depend upon the pollinators for producing seed. Ants are also very important for dispersing seed. Because of their interdependence, it is very important to avoid insecticides around ephemerals.

A partial list of native ephemerals includes:

  • Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)
  • Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum)
  • Jeweled shooting star (Dodecatheon amethystinum)
  • Nodding trillium (Trillium cernuum)
  • Prairie shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia)
  • Rue anemone (Anemonella or Thalictrum thalictroides),
  • Squirrel corn (Dicentra canadensis), Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum)
  • Trout lily (Erythronium americanum), Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica)
  • Virginia spring beauty (Claytonia virginica)
  • Wood anemone (Anemone quinquefolia var. quinquefolia),
  • Wood poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum).

Do not dig up ephemerals from the wild. Once the plants are gone from the forest, they seldom return; moreover, the pollinator population suffers from the loss of nectar. Most of the listed species are readily available from reliable bulb companies. Check their catalogs to see when to plant (mostly in fall). Because they disappear fairly soon, be sure to mark their location. Mask the bare spot with plants requiring like conditions—e.g., ferns, hostas, and similar.

Even though they are with us only a short while every year, native spring ephemerals are some of the most well-loved and worthwhile plants in the garden. Be sure to treat yourself to a few!

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