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.”
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.
Erythronium americanum is among the earliest blooming spring wildflower.
Many of this year’s blossoms have already faded.
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.
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/
Andrea Laine: Sanguinaria canadenis, Houstonia caerulea
Lissa Lutz: Erythronium americanum, Trillium cuneatum, Claytonia virginica
iStockphot: Podophyllum peltatum