The Spring Ephemerals

submitted by Glenn Kotnik, Zaleski, Ohio

Imagine a hike in the woods, perhaps the Zaleski State forest, late March, still a few patches of snow but it’s sunny and a promise of warmth in the air. I call this Winter’s twilight. I’ve had enough of winter but it’s not fully Spring yet either, a sort of seasonal twilight before Spring dawns, every now and then, hiking, a flash of green catches my eye, nascent green leaves burst through last season’s brown leaf litter. Occasionally there is a flower as well, but it will not stay around long; it’s very ephemeral. Why?

These so-called Spring ephemerals are not a type of plant, nor a botanical family, but more a specialized botanical way of doing business, plant business, which, like all life, means making more of one’s self, reproducing. The Spring ephemerals have found a way of exploiting the fleeting period of time in the woods that other woodland plants have not discovered yet, Winter’s twilight. They have found a loophole so to speak, a few weeks between hard frozen winter and spring warmth. Soon every dormant tree, shrub and plant will leaf out. Sunlight is suddenly scarce on the forest floor. The Spring ephemerals grab the sunlight before it becomes blocked by bigger and taller things, they flower, attract the few available pollinators and make seed, in the most efficient way imaginable. They are not alone in this risky ecosystem, insect pollinators such as ants not only make fertile seed possible but the insects carry seed of the plant back to their nests where the seed germinates and grows into a new flowering plant. The ant uses the flower nectar and pollen for nutrition, a mutualism or symbiosis. The ephemeral plants have adapted to this twilight niche  like cacti have adapted to the desert.

Notice features these Spring ephemerals all have in common: economy, frugality. They are compact, they grow just big enough to flower and produce seed. Then gone, dormant until next season.

Skunk Cabbage
Symplocarpus foetidis

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
 Drives my green age, that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintery fever.
                                                                        Dylan Thomas Circa 1930

I wonder.  Could Thomas have been thinking of this green fuse, the earliest emerging of all woodland flowering plants, biochemically blasting its way through ice and snow? Notice the net-veining in the spathe, very unusual in a monocot.

Blood Root
Sanguinaria canadensis

The net-veined leaves of blood root are seen very early in spring, the large many-petaled flowers only a week or two later.

Houstonia caerulea

Found in very early spring in small patches.  The four petals distinguish bluets from spring beauty and other early spring plants.

Spring Beauty
Claytonia virginica

The name says it all.

Cutleaved Toothwort
Cardamine concatenate

Many people will remember this early spring flower as Dentaria lancinata, but no longer. That’s taxonomy for you!

Wild Ginger
Asarum caudatum

The distinctive, ruby-colored flower of wild ginger grows at the base of the plant and is often hidden from view by the large leaves.  This photo shows the big heart-shaped leaves of wild ginger growing over the long, light and dark green striped leaves of waterleaf.  It is the roots of wild ginger, not the leaves, that have been used as a substitute for the spice ginger.

Fire Pink
Silene virginica

Not a very early spring flower, but the small patches of intense red add drama to spring. They seem to favor steep slopes making photography difficult, and also difficult for deer to browse.

Star of Bethlehem
Ornithogalum umbellatum

The six petals distinguish this wildflower from spring beauty. This is a common plant in woodland areas but is not native to North America.  It has been imported from parts of Europe and Asia. It is considered an invasive plant.

Large-Flowered Trillium
Trillium grandiflorum

Another flowering plant awaited by many as assuring certainty of spring’s arrival. Flowers of this white Trillium remain overlapping at the base, a feature differentiating it from drooping Trillium and Snow Trillium.

Toad Shade
Trillium sessile

Perhaps the wildflower with the most enigmatic common name. The three sepals curve gracefully but do not hang down below the petals like the sepals of Purple Trillium, Trillium recurvatum.

Large-Flowered Trillium, Trillium grandiflorum with
Rue Anemone, Anemonella thalictroides

The paddle-shaped leaves with lobed edges make Rue Anemone hard to mistake for other plants with six-petaled flowers.

Foam Flower
Tiarella cordifolia

 Another imaginatively named wildflower.  It doesn’t take very much imagination to understand the appeal of this plant.

Wild Blue Phlox
Phlox divaricate

Common later in spring along wooded roadsides.


2 thoughts on “The Spring Ephemerals

  1. Beautiful photos, Glenn! Many of the ephemerals bloom at the same time that some species of morel begin to emerge in the same rich woods.
    Be careful not to crush these beauties as you hunt for mushrooms!

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