Spring Emphemerals

Lucky are we who live in this part of the country, when most winters last for only a few months. We can count on warm, sunny days in late February and early March. In the woods, before the deciduous trees leaf out to produce shade, the sun begins to warm the soil and triggers the emergence of spring ephemerals — unique wildflowers that have a short presence on the forest floor.

These perennial plants rapidly send up foliage, blossom, set seed, and disappear in a few weeks. Searching for these first wildflowers of the year is one of the highlights of the gardening year.

Bloodroot-by Rita Mercer

Bloodroot
(Sanguinaria canadensis)

This white-flowering ephemeral seems to glow under the warm rays of the late winter sun. The two-inch wide, showy flowers have a prominent yellow center. Native Indians used its red roots for dye and war paint.

 

Rue Anemone

Rue Anemone
(Thalictrum thalictroides)
A delicate woodland perennial, Rue Anemone features pink or white blossoms rising above a whorl of dark-green, 3-parted leaves. The leaves are similar to those found on meadow rues.

 

 

Mayapple-by JC Raulston Arboretum

Mayapple
(Podophyllum peltatum)
A unique plant, Mayapple has two umbrella-like leaves and one white flower, which grows in the axil of the leaves (where the leaf stalk attaches to the stem). Mayapples are showy and colonize easily by rhizomes, forming clusters throughout the forest.

 

White Wake-Robin-JC Raulston Arboretum

White Wake-Robin
(Trillium grandiflorum)
Another much loved white-flowering ephemeral, White Wake-Robin takes seven years to journey from seed to flower. The showy, three-petal blossoms of white, which eventually turn pink with age, rise above the forest floor on 12 to 15 inch single stems highlighted by three green, leaf-like bracts.

 

Liverwort-by Rita Mercer

Liverwort
(Hepatica americana)
One of the first ephemerals to emerge, Liverwort is named such because its shiny leaves supposedly resemble that organ. A multitude of light blue to lavender one-inch wide flowers makes it easy to spot on the forest floor.

 

 

Azure bluet-by JC Raulston Arboretu

Azure Bluet
(Houstonia caerulea)
The small, delicate pale blue flowers with yellow centers can be seen clustered in striking patches of light blue. Azure bluet can expand across a broad area of the forest, growing in compact tufts eight inches tall.

 

 

Virginia Bluebell-by JC Raulston Arboretum

Virginia bluebells
(Mertensia virginica)
If your woodland rambles include floodplains, you may be fortunate to encounter colonies of Virginia bluebells. Its soft-magenta flower buds open to beautiful bell-shaped nodding clusters of blue flowers. It puts on a spectacular show when grown in masses.

 

Trout Lily-by Rita Mercer

Trout Lily
(Erythronium americanum)
Indigent to creek banks, the plant’s mottled leaves resemble the markings of brook trout. Golden-yellow bell-shaped flowers have long red stamens and recurved petals (petals that curve backward or inward). Large colonies of Trout Lily may be over 100 years old.

 

Shooting Star

Shooting Star
(Dodecatheon meadia)
Another spring ephemeral with recurved petals, the five petals of the flower sweep back like the tail of a shooting star, which gives the plant its name. Native bees, the chief pollinators, must extract pollen by vibrating their bodies against the narrow tube, shaking the pollen out.