Adding Native Spring Ephemerals to Ornamental Flower Beds
As we march into spring when seed catalogs and garden centers begin to advertise all the new extravagant and exotic blooming colors of annuals and perennials, please pause to consider adding a few native wildflowers to your ornamental gardens. Discover the potential these forgotten treasures have to offer. Also, by cultivating wildflowers, one gains insight into seasonal rhythms and life cycles simply by looking into one’s own backyard. Furthermore, gardeners will find opportunities to learn about the medicinal properties of these exquisite and dainty short-lived delights.
Spring ephemerals are the first hues that briefly pop out under the sun before leaves appear on the trees. They flourish in the woodlands below the composting leaves that provide shelter and nutrients. These beautiful wildflowers have structures that evolved to insure their survival. Some only attract specific bee types, while others close their flowers on cloudy days. Certain ephemerals coat their seeds with elaiosome (fleshy appendages the ants will eat), establishing a myrmecochory relationship with ants. Myrmechochory is the scientific term for ants collecting seeds and dispersing them. What better drama can be viewed than these impermanent spring wildflowers that bring the first excitement and stimulation to the season of rebirth?
When I lived in England (during grad school, studying the domestication of plants and animals), I hiked miles in the rain, gales, and snow. I’ll never forget the delight and endless giggles the daffodils gave me, happily shivering in a “cat’s nose” — the British name for a cold northern wind — as I trudged up the hills to Walkley in Sheffield. As a Mississippi native, this gave me uplifting, golden, comic relief in late February during the brutal, endless wet, grey, twilight days. Now that I am in Virginia, every year (before growing season) I look forward to seeing Eranthis, crocus, Lenten rose, and my forever friend, February gold daffodil in Mr. Peter’s overgrown garden. These ornamental plants grow wildly here as they did in the U.K., yet long ago, they were purposely placed by a thoughtful gardener. When I participated in archaeological surveys, it was always very special to find ornamental gardens that had outlasted the pioneer settlements. This insight inspired me to introduce native wildflowers into established gardens that are thriving, low maintenance, but perhaps a bit overgrown. Perfect for the garden beds that “got away” or sit by the edge of the woodland.
The focus here is on native ephemerals that bloom in our area in March.
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is also known by many other common names, including puccoon-root, coon root, snake bite, and Indian paint. www.nps.gov/shen.
This delicate white-petaled wildflower grows in partly sunny to shady deciduous woodlands in well-drained, rich soil (pH 4.5-7). It can easily self sow if leaf litter is removed around the plant to expose bare soil.
Propagation through dividing rhizomes is easier than harvesting the seeds Divisions should be made in early fall; not in hot weather. Collecting seeds is challenging; to succeed, one must know the plant’s lifecycle to carefully watch the pods turn color from green to dark. So I’d suggest you give up on sowing bloodroot seeds, and simply enjoy watching how ants spread the bloodroot seeds; it’s a delightful display of mutualism.
Here’s how this mutualism works. Many woodland wildflowers have a fleshy, fatty appendage called an elaiosome that ants like to eat. The ants will carry the seed back to their colony, feed on the bit with nutrients, and discard the seed into the “compost pile.” The seed will then have an ideal place for growth. The seeds of spring ephemerals can be heavy because they have to push out of the heavy “horizon O” layer of the soil. The horizon O layer is the topmost layer of soil, and it is the organic material, mostly decomposing leaves, located above the next layer, topsoil. When the seeds are fairly heavy, they are less likely to be carried off by wind, paving the way for a fabulous beneficial relationship with ants.
Hive bees and bumble bees will pollinate bloodroot, even though the blossoms have no nectar. They attract the bees looking for food when other flowers are not yet in bloom. If the weather is too cold for the bees to be active, bloodroot can shoot pollen out of its sacs to cross-pollinate, and like many ephemerals, can make seeds without insect aid. Large patches of bloodroot can be an indication that an ant colony has been collecting seeds for many years. The new generation of seeds do not often travel far from the parent; therefore, habitat fragmentation, over-population of deer, and poaching (illegal removal of wild plants) can easily wipe out a bloodroot community. By planting bloodroot in your garden, you can assure its future existence. It is a beautiful groundcover that is so much fun to watch.
Bloodroot gets its name because orange-red sap runs through its stem and rhizomes, and this sap can permanently stain. Sanguinaria comes from the Latin word for blood. The Native Americans used it as paint for their baskets and faces. They also added the rhizomes to a mixture to cure skin irritants like eczema and ringworms. The sap has anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial agents, but can be toxic, too. It has been used in toothpaste and mouthwash, but this practice has been discontinued due to pre-cancerous lesions in users. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. For more on this topic, see Va. Tech’s RootReport, www.rootreport.frec.vt.edu (“We provide research and extension services for people who work with nontimber forest products (NTFPs), including medicinal, edible and decorative plants and fungi).
Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)
This wonderful wildflower looks like an upside down pair of white pantaloons; hence, the name. Dicentra is Latin for spurs. Like bloodroot, it is in the poppy family. It thrives under the shade and partial sun in rich, moist soil under the leaf litter (pH 5-6). The flowers last only for a few days. The entire plant will disappear near mid-summer, whereas bloodroot’s broad, sand dollar-like leaves will continue to cover the ground as an accessory. These fancy trouser-like flowers are dependent upon insect carriers, like most spring ephemerals. However, Dutchman’s breeches contain nectar that a specialized bee with a long proboscis inserts deep into the pants’s leg to lick out the sweet surprise. This special bee is able to unload a lot of pollen for the Dutchman in return for its meal. There is another clever bee that has been observed to cut the bottom of the britches so that nectar pours out. Alas, no pollen is accumulated this way and the wildflower gains no benefit.
Dutchman’s breeches can be considered to be poisonous; therefore, be aware of neighbors and animals that may be around. It contains aporphine and protopine, which are central nervous system depressants found in the opium poppy. This plant is also known as “staggerweed,” since farm animals often staggered after foraging the plant in pastures. European settlers used this plant for skin diseases and urinary tract infections. This is probably a plant that you want to look at but not touch. Which leads to the introduction of the Dutchman’s sister plants: bleeding heart and squirrel corn. These siblings can be planted with the Dutchman, although squirrel corn blooms later. Bleeding heart is a nice addition to hosta gardens. Bleeding hearts successfully self-sow and are easily weeded. They all have tubers that can be divided in fall or early spring. If you are a brave gardener and consider planting the Dutchman’s breeches, they grow harmoniously with trout lily, spring beauties, and ferns such as the fiddleheads. Have no fear and enjoy what fun this band of merriment can add to the garden! wp.stolaf.edu/woodlands/ephemerals/dutchmansbreeches.
Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica), also known as the “wild potato” — is possibly the first food a bear finds as it stretches out of hibernation into an array of peppermint-striped flowers. Mind you, devouring the entire field for the little corms (which can be divided by gardeners), are not much food for a hungry bear. These sweet petite flowers only last a few days but will continue to bloom until the end of May. They blend in well with ferns and other wildflowers with rich, damp soils (pH 5-6). They thrive next to creeks. A ground bee collects the pollen to feed its larvae. The delicate flowers will close on overcast days to protect themselves. These little lovelies are easily overlooked in the wild.
Spring beauty is in the Purslane family and contains vitamins A and C. The Iroquois tribes crushed the roots to make a concoction for colds and cunvulsions. There is an enlightening Chippewa story about how spring beauty was created, and it’s recounted at the website of the Indiana Native Plant and Wildflower Society, www.inpaws.org/spring_beauty.pdf.
Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum), also known as fawn lily, dogtooth violet, and adder’s tongue.
This fantastic flower has fabulous spotted leaves that create a strong interest for garden beds. They grow well with spring beauties and ferns because they like the same environment. Their seeds develop corms that send out runners or droppers to find nutrients to make more corms. A single seed can make up to ten plants, which in a few years creates a colony. Trout lily can therefore be a good plant to help with erosion. It will also close its flowers to protect itself during crisp spring mornings. Tiny little flies may act as pollinators. It is important to know that single-leaf plants are sterile and are the strongest for propagation. Divide these and be patient for them to bloom after a couple seasons. Disturbing blooming trout lilies may be damaging to the plant’s life cycle.
Trout lily is sometimes used in salads and the roots have been used in teas to reduce fevers; however, it has been known to cause stomach upsets in some people, so don’t try this until you do some more extensive research! It has a chemical that prevents cell mutation and is being studied for cancer cures. The Native Americans used the leaves as a poultice for skin ailments. It is said that Cherokees would chew the root and spit into the water to get fish to bite! altnature.com//troutlily
Toadshade Trillium (Trillium sessile)
I just couldn’t end without giving a huge shout-out to trilliums. They are so enchanting and easily identified. They are also in the lily family and can coexist with the wildflowers discussed above. Trillium is from the Latin word “tres” meaning three, referring to the flower parts. The main pollinators are flies and beetles. They have rhizomes which can be divided. Native Americans used the plant parts to stop bleeding.
In order to survive, it is necessary to adapt to the localized environment. Although living organisms can survive nomadic ventures, much can be gained by sustaining our native roots. Sometimes it is best just to let things be. I encourage interested readers to further investigate wildflowers through virginiawildlife.org and to find walking trails to observe these plants before introducing them to their gardens so that they can become acquainted. Kind of like getting to know someone before you let them move in! It will take time to introduce wildflowers into your gardens, but eventually they will begin to grow and bloom as they were meant to, thus coexisting with foreign flowers that have established themselves as Virginians, and finding unity with the past.
Flowers of A Woodland Spring (Lerner, C. – children’s book)
Gardening with Native Wild Flowers, Samuel B. Jones, Jr., and Leonard E. Foote
Growing and Propagating Wildflowers, William Cullina
Southeastern Wildflowers, Jan W. Midgley
Wildflowers Around the Year, Hope Ryden
Wildflowers in Color, Arthur Stupka
Wildflowers of the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains, Leonard M. Adkins
Va. Tech’s RootReport, www.rootreport.frec.vt.edu (“We provide research and extension services for people who work with nontimber forest products (NTFPs), including medicinal, edible and decorative plants and fungi).
“Sanguinaria canadensis: Traditional Medicine, Phytochemical Composition, Biological Activities and Current Uses,” National Institutes of Health, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles (Internatinal Journal of Molecular Sciences, 2016)
“An Early Spring Flower: Dutchman’s Breeches,” Finger Lakes Native Plant Society, flnps.org/native-plants/early-spring-flower-dutchmans-breeches
“Spring Ephemerals: Catch ’em While You Can,” Va. Native Plant Society, vnps.org/spring-ephemerals-catch-em-can