Down the Garden Path: The Beauty of spring ephemerals

Virginia bluebells are a spring ephemeral.

Spring has sprung! And with it, many spring ephemerals. While many people look forward to seeing the signs of spring like more sunshine and warmer weather, spotting the year’s first returning American robins and red-winged blackbirds, or the blossoming of magnolia trees, some like to take to the woods and look for the spring ephemerals. Ephemeral means only lasting a short time, which explains why this group of plants has this very name.

What’s an Ephemeral?

Technically, familiar and non-native plants like tulips and daffodils are spring ephemerals. But our native spring ephemerals are woodland flowers that are among the earliest plants to grow and bloom early in the spring. Some only bloom for a few days. They complete their growth, flowering, and release of seeds in just a short window.

By mid-summer, most or all traces of them will be gone. This strategy takes advantage of the fact that the surrounding taller trees and shrubs in the woodland have not yet leafed out and blocked the sun. Even with the cold ground, fluctuating temperatures, and temperamental spring weather, these plants bravely found a seasonal niche that works. Some even come up while snow is still on the ground!

Nature’s Hidden Gems

These woodland treasures are a welcome sight to native bees emerging from hibernation when few other plants are in bloom. Hummingbirds also enjoy those early sips of nectar as they return from their winter homes. Ants get in the game too and are very important for spreading the seeds of most spring ephemerals.

A part of the seeds is highly nutritious and desirable to the ants. Once they remove the nutritious part, they take the remainder of the seeds out and dump them, where they can then grow, taking advantage of the rich soil on the ants’ trash heap!

Ephemeral Examples

Some of the amazing native spring ephemerals you may see include:

Skunk cabbage: Named due to its strong scent, its flower attracts carrion flies. One of the first plants to bloom, the burgundy hood-shaped flower and bright green leaves stand out amid brown and black surroundings.

Virginia bluebells: With their purplish-green leaves and stems and pretty purple-blue flowers shaped like bells, bluebells are a striking among last-year’s leaves.

White or yellow trout lily: Mottled leaves, which resembles a trout’s skin, blend into the forest floor while the white or yellow flower really stands out.

Dutchman’s breeches: Another distinctive flower that looks like a pair of hanging pants.

Mayapple: Like green umbrellas scattered across the woodland, a white flower grows between the leaves of second-year plants.

Spring beauty: This petite plant lays low at only 3-6 inches tall and has delicate purple-white flowers. The flowers will only open in full sunlight and will close if it’s cloudy.

Jack-in-the-pulpit: The distinctive tube-shaped flower becomes a cluster of red berries that birds like to eat.

These delightful and interesting spring ephemeral native wildflowers provide reasons enough to head out for a nice walk in the woods. Each week in spring will have different ephemerals in bloom, so the view is always changing. Add in the cheerful songs of birds and amphibians, and your walk will be full of wonder. Happy Spring!

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B. Tryon is a certified Master Naturalist volunteer with University of Illinois Extension serving DuPage, Kane, and Kendall counties.