Spring Ephemerals

This week brought some nice changes in our weather. It began to look and feel like spring! The grass has really greened up and one variety of my daffodils has opened. The tulips are ready to bloom in our back bed facing east but still tightly closed in our gardens near the road. So far there haven’t been any signs of iris growth or wild blue lupine germinating. It will come.

Of course, the aforementioned plants are not ephemerals. Spring ephemerals are woodland plants that start to grow at once the temperature slightly warms and our days lengthen. They are plants that bloom only briefly, putting on a show on the forest floor or along the hiking trail. They might easily be missed if you aren’t “in the right place at the right time.” It’s probably the rest that I’ve never noticed these plants much before a few years ago. They’ve quickly become a favorite and now that I’m aware, I’m on the lookout for them.

The other night, my husband and I took our dog on the Halfway Creek Trail in our town for a walk. As the name implies, it is a multi-purpose trail through the woods that follows a meandering creek in our town. Often, there are runners, other dog-walkers, bike ridders, and sole walkers communing with nature on the trail.

Shortly after starting out, I noticed a white flower sprouting up near the side of the trail. Blood-root I exclaimed, and ran over to take a “phone picture.” After that, I saw Dutchman’s Breeches blooms sticking up from its green foliage. The sides of the trail were full of both of these plants! The bloodroot was mostly still closed but their white flowers were exposed, still near the distinctive enclosing leaves.

We also saw some ramps starting to grow near the trail’s edge. I took as many photos as I thought my husband and the dog would tolerate me stopping. This morning I walked the same trail with a friend and there seemed to be even more of these two spring ephemerals than two days ago. I did not stop to photograph, however.

Soon, the blooms will be gone and then the foliage will die back as well, just as the word ephemeral indicates. Their presence is transitory. But, the plants, although just briefly seen are still living. They are perennials that spread and survive by underground structures called rhizomes and corms. The leaves have not emerged on the trees this early in the spring and therefore, light can reach the forest floor, warming it and signaling that it is time to grow. Soon, the leaves will emerge and a forest canopy will form that allows less light to reach these plants.

Last spring I took a class on wild edibles just about this time. Although that is an entirely different subject, I did see plenty of ramps. I also found that solidifying my own knowledge of these brief spots of life in the spring has come from photographing and verbally being able to identify what I’m seeing from year to year.

When I worked at a local land trust in 2019, I had none of this knowledge. Don’t get me wrong – I had lots of other knowledge – knowledge that wasn’t tapped – but I didn’t know a thing about spring ephemerals. I’ve come a long way since then and it’s merely been for my own edification and enjoyment. I wish there had been more patience and less assumption that I “knew everything.” I didn’t and I still don’t. But, the great thing is that I’m always willing to learn and there are always new things to learn. It just takes time.

This week I’ve welcomed the arrival of these tiny woodland plants.

To read more about spring ephemerals and know my sources check the following:

Closer to home:

Chicago Botanic Gardens

Wisconsin Wildflowers/Spring Ephemerals

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