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Newsletter Posts

My Favorite Things:  Spring Ephemerals

Robin Schachat

Asking a gardener to name her favorite things in a garden is absurd;  it’s like asking for an encyclopedia.  As winter retreats, do I say the voices of spring peepers?  The duck’s eggs in my planter?  The golden green of the first color to show on willows in spring?  It can’t be done.  But I know one thing I deeply love this time of year:  spring ephemerals.

Ephemeral means fleeting.  “Spring ephemeral plants” are true perennials that emerge in late winter or spring, bloom, and then go dormant as summer warms.  We all know the standard spring bulbs like snowdrops (Galanthus) and grape hyacinths (Muscari), but most of us don’t think of some other old friends such as daffodils (Narcissus) and tulip (Tulipa) as ephemerals --- yet they are ephemerals, too.  And what about poppies (Papaver) and bleeding heart (Dicentra)?  Spring ephemerals in our area include all of these.

But the ones I love best are the natives – those pretty little wildflowers that were just always there underfoot when the air began to smell of soil every year, and the sun was suddenly higher in the sky.  Gardeners in other parts of the country, and further afield in other countries, lust after our spring wildflowers, and rightly so.  They are indeed fleeting, storing sugars to last a long year of dormancy in a few short weeks when the sun is high in the sky, the soil has thawed, and the deciduous trees have not yet blocked overhead light with their shady canopies.  Let’s enjoy a few together.

Erythronium americanum (photo #1), yellow trout lily or dogtooth violet, is neither a lily nor a violet, but sheets of it are blooming in the tens of thousands in Horseshoe Lake Park as I write this column.  This little gem, with its backswept petals and its speckled, lance-shaped leaves, is native throughout the eastern US, but it seems at its best in our particular part of the country.  It has white and purple cousins out west, but the sunny yellow version is our native trout lily, and we are lucky to have it in bloom for a week or two.

Claytonia virginica (#2), spring beauty, is also blooming now.  Its flower is a tiny white or light pink star with rosy veins, and I have actually purchased some and tucked them at the root flares of some big, old oaks, where I know they will thrive and be happy.  To hope for them to jump across the street from the park is not certain enough for me!

Looking vaguely similar and blooming profusely right now is Cardamine concatenata (#3), or cutleaf toothwort (foliage, #4).  This beauty’s blooms usually nod in clusters, unlike spring beauties, and the delicacy of the foliage is almost as attractive as the flowers.  Right now they are mimicking a low-lying, pinkish mist south of Doan Brook as you traverse Park Drive in Shaker.

Podophyllum peltatum, mayapples (#5) , have just today unfurled their umbrellas of foliage in my garden;  the white blooms will follow in a few weeks.  Mine were gifts from Suzy Hartford, and I planted them atop the slope near the sidewalk in front of my home, where passersby can look upward and glimpse the flowers that usually hide shyly under the leaves.  It’s a sight not everyone has seen!

Uvularia grandiflora, merry bells (#6) is another one that reminds me of Suzy – she detests this plant, and considers it a terrible invasive.  Well, in all fairness, it can get rampant in the gardens of northeast Ohio.  But if you have a wild woodland, this is a happy late spring bloomer to enjoy when the earlier ephemerals have begun to nap.

Blooming at about that same time we find Maianthemum racemosum, smilacina (#7),  waving its creamy racemes of starry flowers.  If you are lucky enough to have this charmer in your woodland edges, don’t try to move it or cultivate near it – its roots don’t tolerate disturbance.  Just enjoy it where it blooms, and in a few weeks there will be nothing there to see until next spring unless you are very lucky.  In a cool summer, occasionally the bloom stem persists, showing greenish berries in the fall.

If you are one of the few lucky gardeners who have no deer infestations, your garden may host some of our native trilliums, one of which, Trillium grandiflorum (#8), is the emblem flower of our garden club.  To see these magnificent, brilliant white blossoms in the woods – like the trout lilies, often in large colonies and blooming all at once -- is to know that spring is definitely here.  Sadly, all of our native trilliums are deer candy, so you may need to travel to see them in vast, glorious numbers.

Rain slicker yellow is another color I look forward to seeing in spring, and one of the great showoffs among the spring ephemerals is the greater celandine, Stylophorum diphyllum (#9).  This is sometimes called a wood poppy because the size, color saturation, and sheen of its bloom bring poppies to mind, but they are no relation.  The seeds of Stylophorum, unlike poppyseeds, are fat and rich, and draw not deer but ants in large numbers.  Those voracious ants carry the seeds throughout your woodland garden, accounting for spreading colonies of these voluptuous flowers.  And please do not be tempted by the lesser celandine – it’s an invasive, nonnative thug in the garden, and besides it’s nowhere near as pretty.

I have only begun to list my favorite, fleeting spring favorites;  there are so many to love.  The best thing I can do is to suggest that you walk quietly in the woods each spring, to find favorites for yourself.  And when you find them, think about acquiring some and planting them in your own garden.  As their foliage disappears in early summer, the perennials and ferns amongst which you have planted them will cover the bare soil left behind until next spring.  Then there will be your friends again, poking through the last snow and feeding the early native pollinators who are famished for fleeting fast food.