Now you see them, now you don’t. “They” are ephemerals: Short-lived perennials that bloom in spring, set seed, and then vanish by midsummer. Ephemerals appear in April and May, when conditions are right – usually that means sufficient soil moisture – and before the tree canopy leafs out and hogs all the sunlight. They disappear when conditions no longer favor them. Although the flowers and leaves aboveground wither and die, the belowground parts do not.
In North America the word “ephemerals” generally conjures up images of woodland flowers, however these plants are found in many climates. Desert ephemerals, such as the birdcage evening primrose, offer the glorious wildflower displays in spring in the West.
Besides their beauty, there’s another important reason to grow ephemerals. All of these early risers provide sustenance to hungry pollinators emerging from hibernation, especially bumblebees. Some plants, like the trout lily, are the sole food source for a particular insect species.
Care of ephemerals
One nice thing about these spring bloomers: they’re pretty self-reliant. They’ll be up, flowering, and fading from the scene before you know it. One day you’ll look up from your weeding and they’ll have vanished. This is why you should mark where you plant them, for once they go dormant you could accidently dig them up.
These plants should be sited under deciduous trees, because they benefit both from the sunlight they receive before the trees’ leaves appear, and the protection from harsher sunlight in the warmer months. They will not do well in the dark shade beneath evergreens.
Woodland ephemerals require the cool, moist, well-drained, humus-y soil and partial shade that they’re accustomed to in the wild. They don’t need much in the way of fertilizer; mulching with leaf compost gives them the nutrients they need. With a few exceptions, don’t overwater in the summer while they are dormant.
Four Spring Beauties
The delicate charms of these flowers belie how easy they can be for any home gardener to grow. They are not rare or fussy. Note: Many ephemerals are native to North America and grow in the wild. Poachers have been digging them up to be sold and this has endangered some species. Since they can take years to bloom, overharvesting easily depletes their numbers. Never dig up a plant from the wild, and be sure you are buying nursery-propagated (not just “nursery grown”) specimens.
Trillium (Trillium spp.) Trilliums, also called wake robin, are low growing plants native to North America. The species have red or white three-petaled flowers, but hybrids can be yellow, pink, burgundy or white, with single or double flowers. Some trilliums spread by seed, others by rhizomes. It can take two or three years before they bloom. USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 4 to 9.
Bitterroot (Lewisia) This low-growing plant (only 8” high when in bloom) is native to the western U.S. The species has fresh pink or white flowers, but cultivars also come in orange, salmon, and yellow. It needs drier conditions than its woodland counterparts, and demands well-drained rocky or gravelly soil. Zones 4 to 8.
Trout lily or dogtooth violet (Erythronium) Grow these long-lived (over 100 years) perennials in moist shade, where they like to be crowded together. Needs more summer moisture than most ephemerals, but can’t tolerate soggy soil. The small, nodding flowers can be lavender, yellow or white. The leaves are mottled with white and brown patches. Zones 3-8.
Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) Along with trilliums, Virginia bluebells are probably the best known ephemerals. Flower buds start out pink, then burst into a soft shade of sky blue. By midsummer the leaves are gone. Plants need moist part- to full shade. Grows up to 24”. Will self-seed into colonies. Zones 3 to 8.
Other ephemerals include Virginia spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), sharp-lobed hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba), both with pink flowers, and rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides), photo above, a long-blooming plant with white flowers.
Companion plants include ferns, Solomon’s seal, spring blooming bulbs, and of course, other ephemerals. Follow with hostas, astilbes, and ferns, which will hide the ephemerals’ fading foliage.
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