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Spring Ephemerals: The First Wildflowers

Contributed by: Betsy Rothwell                                                                          

Go for a walk in the woods to see the first wildflowers! Called “spring ephemerals,” these tiny flowers emerge in early spring and disappear when the tree canopies fill out! They have descriptive names: Trillium, Dutchman’s Breeches, and Trout Lily, to name a few.

A sure sign of spring in my area is when the Eastern Spring Beauty appears. Like other spring-blooming ephemerals, this tiny wildflower makes use of the short time before trees leaf out and block the sun on the woodland ground. They fit most of their above-ground life into a few weeks in April and May, then fade away until next spring.

What are Spring Ephemerals?

We call these early wildflowers “ephemerals” because most, if not all, of their growth dies back when it starts to get warm.  They are perennials which grow from underground corms or rhizomes. They can put on such an early show because they have stored food in their bulbs from the previous year’s growth.

Don’t let their small, delicate appearance fool you.  These lovely wildflowers are tough. They are perfectly adapted to the harsh growing conditions of early spring, utilizing the high levels of moisture and nutrients in the soil of deciduous forests at this time of year. Moist soil helps moderate the extreme difference between day and night temperatures and by growing low to the ground, they are out of the range of cold, drying winds.

Spring-blooming ephemerals bloom for only a few precious weeks; they need to complete most of their life cycle in the early spring before the trees, shrubs, and plants leaf out and take the available light. 

Since there are not too many flying insects active this early in the spring, many ephemerals are pollinated by specialized beetles or ants. Others have evolved to look or smell like rotting meat to attract any flesh-eating flies that might be out early. Ants not only pollinate some of the plants but also disseminate the seeds.

How many of these ephemerals can you spot?

Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) look just like white pantaloons hanging upside-down to dry. They are also called Soldier’s Cap or Butterfly Banners and are related to bleeding hearts. The upside-down blossoms protect the pollen from wind and rain. Only the female bumblebees with their long tongues can reach the nectar deep inside the long spurs and pollinate the flower in the process.  

The petals appear before the leaves unfurl and at night they close up to protect the centre from rain or frost.