Saturday, April 23, 2016

Spring Ephemerals


Spring ephemerals are plants on a mission. They awake, leaf out, bloom and set seed all before the heat of summer begins to settle in. Then they quietly slip back into a long slumber to wait for the following spring. 

It's hard not to feel a twinge of panic when ephemeral plants appear to be withering away each summer. Rest assured that the tubers, rhizomes and roots of these plants are tucked safely away underground, where they are resting in the cool shade of perennials that follow them. Their brief appearance has provided enough nutrients to keep them going until they next awake.

Let's take a look at a few of them:

Trilliums are one example of a spring ephemeral.

Trilliums growing in David Tomlinson's garden, Merlin's Hollow.

Large Flowering Trillium, Trillium grandiflorum is a wildflower native to Ontario. They have white flowers with three petals which are held aloft on a stem containing a whorl of three leaves. Their flowers are pollenated by ants, flies and beetles. 
Trilliums are spring ephemerals that require patience. They can take up to 7 years to go from seed to flower. As the flowers fade, they turn from white to a soft pink. Trilliums require moist, well-drained, slightly sandy soil that is rich in organic matter. Full to part shade. Height: 20-50 cm (7-19 inches) USDA Zones: 4-9.

Trillium luteum in the garden of Marion Jarvie, Thornhill, ON.

The leaves petals and sepals of Trillium luteum also come in groups of three. The flower has three erect yellow petals with three greenish sepals. They also have a faint lemon scent. 

Trillium luteum in the garden of Marion Jarvie, Thornhill, ON.

Trillium luteum is a clump forming plant with underground rhizomes that will gradually increase in size and spread slowly. The hosta-like foliage will die to the ground by mid-summer, especially if the soil is on the dry side. Plant this trillium in rich, moist, humus soil. Part-shade to full shade. Height: 20-50 cm (7-19 inches) Spread: 30-45 cm (12- 18 inches) USDA Zones: 4-8.


This is Bloodroot that I brought home last summer from my Mom's garden. I love the way the flowers emerge wrapped up in leafy grey-green arms. This plant gets its name from the bright reddish-orange sap it exudes when it has been cut.

Up the street from where I live there is a huge colony of Bloodroot and blue Scilla that has colonized a damp wooded area. The carpet of tiny blue and white flowers is the most marvellous sight each May.



Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis has white, daisy-like flowers and deeply scalloped, grey-green leaves. As the flower blooms, the leaves unfurl. The flowers open in the sunlight and close at night. Over time Bloodroot can spread and make large colonies. Bloodroot is best grown in rich, well-drained soil. Part-shade to full shade. height: 10-15 cm (4-6 inches) Spread: 15-20 cm (6-8 inches) USDA Zones: 3-8.

Single vs Double Bloodroot

There is a double form of Bloodroot as well. Double Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis f. multplex has sterile flowers and blooms longer than the native single Bloodroot.

Trout Lily, Erythronium americanum

There is a wild patch of tiny Erythronium in the vacant lot next door to our house. I have noted that the little colony appears to bloom sporadically. This is probably because it takes four to five years for Erythronium to go from seed to flower. The corms of these wildflowers are small and crocus-like in comparison with the larger sausage-sized corms of modern hybrids.

Trout Lily, Erythronium americanum derives its name from its fleshy, mottled foliage. They have bell-shaped flowers in May. Erythronium americanum has bulb-like offsets that are easy to break off and plant.


These are the larger hybrids blooming in my garden. Erythronium 'Pagoda' is a more vigorous plant than its wild cousin. It is literally twice the size of the little wildflowers.


Erythronium 'Pagoda' has bright green, fleshy leaves with maroon markings. The leaves disappear shorty after the plant finishes flowering. Like their wild relatives, these hybrids like rich soil and a cool, damp spot in dappled shade. USDA Zones: 4-9.


Rue anemone or Wood Anemone, Anemonella thalictroides is native to the eastern part of North America. It has delicate white flowers and pretty green leaves. Like so many spring ephemerals, this plant likes the dappled shade of deciduous trees and rich, loamy soil that is slightly moist. They bloom for a period of about six weeks and then the plant goes dormant especially if the areas where it is planted is hot and dry. Height: 30-45 cm (12-18 inches), Spread: 7-15 cm ( 3-6 inches). USDA Zones 5-9.


Dutchman's Breeches, Dicentra cucullaria: The common name Dutchman's Breeches refers the the distinctive shape of the white flowers. This plant has lovely, grey-green, fern-like foliage (which rabbits dislike). It can be grown in average, well drained soil, but Dutchman's Breeches much prefers rich, loamy soil that is slightly moist. Dry soil will cause the plant to go dormant more quickly. Part to full shade. Height: (6-12 inches), Spread: (6-12 inches). USDA Zones: 3-7.


Virginia Blue Bells, Mertensia virginica are one of my favourite spring flowers. I love the mix of the pinkish flower buds and the baby-blue flowers. They like rich, loamy soil and part-shade. Once established they are pretty tolerant of dry conditions in summer. Virginia Blue Bells will naturalize in a woodland setting by self-seeding. If you want to divide them, do it in the fall. Height: 30-60 cm, Spread: 30-45 cm. USDA Zones: 2-9.

Shooting Star, Dodecatheon pulchellum in the garden of Marion Jarvie, Thornhill, ON.

Trust expert plantswoman Marion Jarvie to have something super cool like this Shooting Star, Dodecatheon meadia in her Thornhill, Ontario garden. When I visited last May, they seemed very happy on the outer edge of her garden pond.

Shooting Stars are a native North American wildflower. They have a low rosette of long narrow leaves and flowers on long, slender stems. The petals of the flower flare back giving the plant its common name. Fading flowers are replaced by fruit that dry into a woody seed pod each fall.


Shooting Star, Dodecatheon meadia 'alba' is a short-lived perennial that takes a year or so to flower. Typically they put on their best display in year three and then they disappear. Plant it in rich, moist soil. Full sun to part-shade. Height: 20-30 cm ( 8-12 inches), Spread: 15-20 cm (6-8 inches). USDA Zones: 2-9.

Shooting Star, Dodecatheon meadia in the garden of Marion Jarvie, Thornhill, ON.

Caring for your Spring Ephemerals: 

Spring ephemerals are woodland plants, so its best to choose a spot that offers dappled sunlight in spring and shade in summer. These plants like well-drained, slightly acidic soil, mulched with shredded leaves.

These plants have evolved to take advantage of warming soil and plentiful spring rain. Though they like spring moisture, they are quite drought tolerant once they enter their summer dormancy. To conserve moisture mulch in fall with shredded leaves. Fertilizer applied just as the flower buds appear can encourage a longer, better display of flowers.

Plant spring ephemerals in amongst other plants that will fill in as spring warms into summer. Hostas and ferns are two good choices.

One of the biggest challenges with spring ephemerals is to remember where they are planted once they go dormant. It's a good idea to find a way to mark their location, so you don't disturb these lovely spring beauties.

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15 comments:

  1. Posted at 5:11 AM? Wow. I like to mark bulbs and ephemeral locations with river stones. I do that with my hostas too.

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    1. I did post early, but I didn't think it was that early. I'm travelling and wanted to finally get a post up this week before I went. River stones sound like a great idea. I may try that myself.

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  2. I recognise a few that are already in my garden. It's nice to be able to put a name to them.

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    1. It's nice to know the names of plants. It's like finally knowing the name of someone you cross paths with frequently on the subway or in the hallway. Somehow it puts you on more intimate terms.

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  3. These are my favourite sort of flowers and show why our little woodland is my favourite part of the garden here. I just mulch in the autumn with leaf mould and they all seem very happy.

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    1. You have the most wonderful collection of woodland plants Pauline. I aspire to have a garden as nice.

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  4. Beautiful garden! Thanks for sharing your gorgeous photos!
    Jody

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  5. You have really lovely specialty plants in your garden, most of them even won't grow in my garden, for instance Trilliums. I was laughing about the common name for Dicentra cucullaria, Dutchman's breeches, haha.

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  6. Wonderful photos! I have a real fondness for spring ephemerals. I am fortunate that trilliums flourish in my woodland garden, and I have never had to plant them. I did plant bloodroot, which has taken years to establish itself. Finally, this year I see it beginning to spread.

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  7. We are lucky to have a huge carpet of scilla in our side yard - every year, the blue just shines when there's nothing else blooming. Also have a few trilliums including a rare red one that blooms poradically.
    Your photographs are stunning!!!

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  8. Hello Jennifer girl !
    This is a timely post to jog our memories on how gorgeous these plants are and how they react with dormancy (must remember to mark them !) I thought I lost my Dutchman's Breeches but it is smiling at me close to the hellebore I split for you .. I think they are pals ? haha .. today it is one degree and the rain has turned to snow .. but there is sun and warmer temps forcasted for the rest of the week .. fingers crossed ! Gorgeous pictures as always girl !
    Joy : )

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  9. All of these are so beautiful, Jennifer, but I am quite sure the bluebells are my favorite.
    Such a wonderful flower.
    We brought some trillium with us when we moved last year, but I am not sure they made it. Will definitely have to find some more.

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  10. What a heavenly feast for the eyes! So many little jewels, I loved them all.xxx

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  11. Such beautiful pictures of these spring ephemerals! I've only had success with Va. Bluebells but that's OK because they are such lovely flowers.

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  12. So many beauties...I have most of these and look forward to seeing them every spring.

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