Spring Ephemerals 2023

Spring Ephemerals 2023

While they are long-lived perennial colony-formers, their roots multiplying year after year underground, the above ground lives of spring ephemerals are brief. Often missed by human observers, these fleeting treasures have evolved to complete their reproductive lifecycles in the short window of time between winter’s grip loosening and the trees regrowing leaves that cast the understory into shade. Spending most of their lives as stored energy, spring ephemerals are triggered to emerge by longer day length and increasing soil temperatures. Time being of the essence, plants grow rapidly to set seed and store nutrients for the following year. As the canopy grows and temperatures warm, the foliage of spring ephemerals withers and dies, sending energy back into the roots to store over the many months of dormancy ahead. Like magic, these delicate looking plants will disappear before summer’s onset.


Though it is still early, even for ephemerals, you may have already noticed the bright blue carpets of Scilla siberica, a beautiful, but potentially invasive perennial bulb native to Europe and brought here centuries ago as a landscape plant. They’ve been widely planted in lawns where their early growth and cheery blooms bring vibrancy to otherwise brown turf and conveniently go dormant around the same time the grass needs mowing. Scilla’s emergence before our native spring ephemerals is part of what makes it appealing in the garden and is also part of what makes it hazardous to our natives. A rapid colonizer, Scilla is able to take up the space and sun first, leaving later plants no room to surface. Cold hardy and free seeding, Scilla is so good at naturalizing that it can escape cultivation and pose a threat to native woodland plants that it outcompetes. More research is needed on Scilla’s impact to our native ecosystems. If you see Scilla siberica that has escaped into a natural area, please report it to the Great Lakes Early Detection Network (GLEDN).

While the Scilla is stealing the show, indigenous gems around North Pond like Mayapple, Bloodroot and Virginia Bluebells are yet unseen, or are mere nubs tentatively poking out from the soil’s surface, and yet, will vanish by summer. Visit throughout the spring season to catch a glimpse of some of these disappearing acts.   

Mayapple (Podophyllum pelatum), despite its common name, is grown for its foliage rather than its bland, inconspicuous fruit. Single white flowers, though showy, are hardly noticeable from above. Born on stems beneath large, umbrella-like leaves, they attract long-tongued and bumble bees. The leaf atop each stem stays furled until it has reached full height. Mayapple foliage typically senesces later than that of other ephemerals, but its longevity is highly dependent upon environmental factors.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) has an orange rhizome that emits a red liquid when cut. Lobed leaves unfurl along with the impressive white flowers. Flowers open in the sun and close at night or under cloud cover. If pollinated, the blooms will shatter within a day or two and a seedpod will develop. Seeds mature as the foliage senesces. Each seed has a tasty attachment called an eliasome, a favorite food of ants. When the pod splits open ants are attracted and inadvertently disperse the seeds by carrying them to their nests.


Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) grows from a long, difficult to transplant taproot. The foliage it sends up is purple and upright when it first emerges before turning green and floppy as it matures.  Flower buds are purpley pink, opening to sky blue tubular blooms that attract a variety of bee and butterfly species, bee mimics and hummingbirds. In the wild, Mertensia forms vast colonies in shady bottomlands where conditions are favorable, providing masses of early nectar for woodland inhabitants. 

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