Searching for Spring Ephemerals
Question: When and where do I go to find spring ephemerals and can I grow them in my garden?
Here Today, Gone Tomorrow
Spring ephemerals are flowering plants that emerge from the forest floor in late winter or early spring and blossom before tree leaves appear and block the sunlight. As the name implies, they have a limited amount of time to bloom, be pollinated and produce seeds. They are appreciated for the diversity of flowers, colors and leaf types. They are all the more beloved because the flowers and foliage disappear quickly as these plants go dormant. Most are perennial and their bulbs, corms or other underground storage organs provide the food needed to produce the next year’s leaves and flowers. They are magnets for pollinators and are an important source of nectar and pollen early in the year when few other plants are flowering. Many have specialist pollinators associated with them, but they usually have several different pollinators, including native bees and many species of flies.
Searching for Spring Ephemerals
Look for these ephemerals is in early spring in woodlands with rich, moist and undisturbed soil. The Virginia Native Plant Society reports that “April is perhaps the very best month in Virginia to catch sight of these extraordinary flowers”. Most importantly, you’ll need to know where to look and how to identify the plants – leaves, flowers and seeds – because you are likely to see these plants in various stages of their life cycle. Many of the flowers close on cool or cloudy days, making the task of spotting them even harder.
Timing of your search is key: while some spring ephemerals bloom for a few days or a couple of weeks depending on the species, the bloodroot flowers last only for a day. After flowering some of these species lose their leaves very fast and are not seen until the next spring. Among those native to Virginia’s Northern Piedmont area that are seen only briefly are Dutchman’s breeches, rue anemone, star chickweed, toadshade trillium, trout lily, Virginia spring beauty and Virginia bluebells. Other Northern Piedmont natives retain their leaves into the summer in moist conditions, including bloodroot, jack-in-the-pulpit, Jacob’s ladder, mayapple, and round-lobed hepatica. Learn to identify some of the most common spring ephemerals from this Smithsonian webinar, view photos found on the native plant websites and the botanical gardens referenced below, and find tips on overcoming the challenge of identifying spring ephemerals with this Penn State guide.
For those on the hunt for spring ephemerals for the first time, consider one of the spring wildflower walks offered by native plant societies and other horticultural organizations. Or, arrange a walk with a friend experienced in finding spring ephemerals in your area. Some other options for viewing spring ephemerals in Virginia and nearby areas follow, along with a sample of the species found in these locations.
- Shenandoah National Park (VA) for mountain laurel, trillium and Virginia bluebells. (See the calendar of spring wildflowers in this National Park.)
- Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Regional Park (Leesburg, VA) for birdsfoot violets, star chickweed, trout lilies, Virginia bluebells, and wild ginger.
- Cacapon Resort State Park (Morgan,WV) for hepatica, meadow rue and toothwort.
- Riverbend Park (Great Falls, VA) for bloodroot, Dutchman’s breeches, squirrel corn, trillium and Virginia bluebells.
- Rock Creek Park (Washington, DC) for bloodroot, Dutchman’s breeches, hepatica, trout lilies, spring beauty, and Virginia bluebells.
- Scott’s Run Nature Preserve (McLean, VA) for trillium and Virginia bluebells.
- Seneca Creek State Park (Gaithersburg, MD) for columbine, round-leaved orchid, and whorled pogonia.
For hikers, there are also many wildflower trails to explore throughout Virginia.
Bringing Spring Ephemerals to the Home Garden
It is possible to plant spring ephemerals in your garden if you select a wooded area on your property that receives sun in late winter but will be lightly shaded later on. Planting them in fall or winter is best but these plants are rarely available for purchase at that time of year. They can also be planted in the spring but may not produce flowers until the next year. Grow them in moist acidic soil under leaf litter, which provides the right environment for these plants and their pollinators. Annual maintenance involves mulching in the fall or very early spring with finely shredded leaves to keep the soil moist. Fertilizer can be applied as flower buds appear for a larger and longer flowering display.
Threats to Spring Ephemerals
Although these plants generally continue to thrive in their natural woodland habitats, they are on decline in urbanized areas due to habitat destruction, aging forests, invasive plants, air and water pollution, over browsing of deer and disruption of the ecological balance between the plants and their pollinators. Humans also contribute to this decline by picking flowers or harvesting wild plants. The impact can be substantial because it takes these plants up to 20 years to reestablish after land is disturbed. Gardeners should be careful to buy only from reputable nurseries that sell “nursery propagated”, rather than merely “nursery grown” spring ephemerals.
More on Spring Ephemerals and Other Native Plants
Explore the advantages of using these plants in your garden from Virginia’s many native plant websites, including Piedmont Master Gardeners’ new native plants webpage. Discover the wide variety of Northern Virginia Piedmont Natives available and those suitable for your growing conditions. View native plant lists and databases. You can even download a comprehensive list of plants native to the Northern Piedmont and take it with you when you shop at a local native plant retailer. Look for the red stickers noting Virginia native plants on pots at many local retailers. Both your garden and the environment will benefit!
“Adding Native Spring Ephemerals to Ornamental Flower Beds”, Kaplan, Nona, The Garden Shed, Piedmont Master Gardeners, Vol. 4 No. 3, Mar. 2018.
“Ephemeral Beauty”, Harpole, Sara, Conservation, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, The University of Texas at Austin, 1 Feb. 2007.
“Plant Virginia Natives, Virginia Native Plant Marketing Partnership”, Piedmont Master Gardeners.
“Native Spring Ephemerals”, Anzelone, Marielle, Gardening How-To Articles, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, 1 Apr. 2010.
“Native Spring Ephemerals”, Mawby, Amy, Education Manager, Jenkins Arboretum & Gardens”, Smithsonian Gardens, 2022 (webinar).
“Spring Ephemerals: Catch ‘em While You Can”, Virginia Native Plant Society, 7 Apr. 2014.
“Spring Ephemerals for the Garden”, Plant NOVA Natives, 2021.
“Spring Ephemerals for Residential Gardens”, Smith, Mandy L., Master Gardener Coordinator, Westmoreland County, Penn State Extension, Penn State, 22 Mar.2021.
“Spring Woodland Flowers: Overcoming the Learning Challenge”, Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, Penn State, College of Agricultural Sciences, 27 Apr. 2018.
“Spring’s Edible Buffet: Native Pollinators Need Early Spring Wildflowers”, Mt. Cuba Center, 20 Apr. 2017.
“The Secrets of Spring Ephemerals in the Woods”, Plant Science & Conservation, Chicago Botanic Garden.
“Wildflowers”, Shenandoah National Park Virginia, National Park Service.
“7 Places to See Spring Wildflowers in Virginia (& Nearby)”, Starr, Megan, Virginia Travel Tips, 11 Mar. 2022.