Small Signs of Spring

By Andrea Laine

A young child’s drawing of nature typically depicts a tall tree topped with a ball of green leaves. In the sky above is a yellow sun and under the treetop canopy are colorful flowers. Sometimes they are painted bold primary colors – red, blue, green. Sometimes pastel pinks, purples, blues. If I think really hard, I can I remember drawing this scene myself.

As a gardener though, I know it is awfully hard to grow plants with ornamental flowers under a shade tree. Unless, that is, the flowers bloom before the trees leaf out as is the scenario with a category of wildflowers known as “spring ephemerals.”

The flower of Sanguinaria canadenis closes at night and on cloudy days. It will also close if the weather is too cool for flies, a move that protects its nectar. (The heart-shaped leaves at the top of this photo belong to wild ginger.)
The flower of Sanguinaria canadenis closes at night and on cloudy days. It will also close if the weather is too cool for flies, a move that protects its nectar. (The heart-shaped leaves at the top of this photo belong to wild ginger.)

Some plants that fall into this category and that grow in the NC Piedmont region include: Erythonium americanum (yellow trout lily), Hepatica americana (liverwort), Claytonia virginica (spring beauty), Sanguinaria canadenis (bloodroot), Houstonia caerulea (Quaker ladies), Trillium cuneatum (sweet betsy), Podophyllum peltatum (mayapple).

These plants are mostly under a foot tall. (Podophyllum peltatum can reach 18 inches.) The flowers are small and somewhat understated. Against the brown background of a winter deciduous forest floor (their habitat), it doesn’t much matter; they are a welcome sight. The initiation of growth and flowering in spring ephemerals depends upon temperature, as does the emergence of their insect pollinators (Spira p. 351). Once the canopy trees leaf out and the forest floor is shaded, these wildflowers go dormant till the following spring.

trout lily blooming trout

Erythronium americanum is among the earliest blooming spring wildflower.
Many of this year’s blossoms have already faded.

The dainty flowers of Claytonia virginica truly are spring beauties.
Ants pollinate Trillium cuneatum.
The ripe fruit of Podophyllum peltatum is edible. All other parts of the plant are poisonous.
The ripe fruit of Podophyllum peltatum is edible. All other parts of the plant are poisonous.
In the Piedmont, Houstonia caerulea blooms more sparsely than it would in the cooler mountains.
In the Piedmont, Houstonia caerulea blooms more sparsely than it would in the cooler mountains.

Your best chance for sighting a spring ephemeral may be at a botanical garden where they are less likely to be hidden by leaf litter and may also be marked with a sign. In the wild, keep your eyes peeled for them while hiking through the woods or walking along a nature trail from March through May.

An ephemeral by definition is something that lasts for a very short time. Each of these plants may bloom for just a few days, but they are a glorious reminder that spring has arrived. It’s a pretty picture.

Resources
T. P. Spira, 2011, Wildflowers & Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachian Mountains & Piedmont, University of North Carolina Press.

North Carolina Native Plant Society: http://www.ncwildflower.org/
Photo credits:
Andrea Laine: Sanguinaria canadenis, Houstonia caerulea
Lissa Lutz: Erythronium americanum, Trillium cuneatum, Claytonia virginica
iStockphot: Podophyllum peltatum

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s