Spring Ephemerals in the Wissahickon

Nature // March 23, 2016

by Wendy Willard, Hort. Landscape Design and FOW Trail Ambassador

We are fortunate to live in the Eastern Deciduous Woodlands, where seasons are clearly demonstrated by the surrounding vegetation (or lack of it). From the delicate Spring Beauties to the fire red Tupelos, each season has its harbingers.

Unlike the coniferous, evergreen forests, the deciduous forest floor receives almost full sun from late autumn to the middle of spring. A unique herbaceous layer results between thaw and the emergence of the canopy. The wildflowers, known as spring ephemerals, burst forth and bloom for only a few weeks before they wither and go dormant as the canopy leafs out.

Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginiana) form vast carpets of pink veined, five petaled flowers among long, narrow leaves. The plants emerge from deep underground corms, so seemingly unconnected pairs of leaves and stems may rise from the same corm.

Another temporary ground cover is Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis), which blooms with short, arching spikes of white, fragrant, heart shaped flowers above soft mounds of finely pinnate leaves. This early delicate wildflower is not to be confused with the larger Bleeding Heart (Dicentra spectabilis), often found in our cultivated gardens.

Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica) appear as striking clusters of violet to azure bells above broad, thin blue-green foliage. The flowers open in sequence, rising farther and farther above the leaves. Unfortunately, wild collectors have dug up Virginia Bluebells by the thousands for the trade. Instead, shake the dried seed heads like a magic wand and you’ll have an abundance of Bluebells next year.

The Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum) blooms along with trout season, which explains its common name and the gray, green, and brown mottling on the foliage suggests the side of a brook trout. A short, bright yellow Lily flower emerges from between pairs of leaves, while single leaves are sterile.

Some might question whether the next two examples are true ephemerals, as their foliage may persist into early summer. The snowy white flowers with yellow center of the Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) last only a few days in the early spring. The petals start to fall before the leaves fully unfurl. The beautiful foliage is almost round and notched like a sand dollar.

And if you are lucky, you may find an example of one of the most elegant native wildflowers of all, the genus Trillium. The Purple Trillium (Trillium erectum) and the White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) both bear their three petaled flowers on stems lifting the blooms above a whorl of three leaves. The plant is slow and difficult to propagate. So again, be mindful that many of these plants that you find in the nursery have been wild collected.

As I have to remind myself each spring, when the Yellow Trout Lilies cover the hillside below my house, spring ephemerals should be admired but not transplanted. Resist the temptation. These wildflowers have a very special time and place in our Eastern Deciduous Woodlands.