Spring Ephemerals: The First Wildflowers

9 Spring-Flowering Ephemerals

April 16, 2020
Trout Lilly

Spring ephemerals are the first wildflowers to appear in early spring. If you have a chance for a quiet walk in the woods, keep an eye out for diminutive, delightfully delicate flowers. Let’s take a look at bloodroot, trout lilies, and other ephemeral varieties. Their beauty is fleeting! 

Most spring ephemerals are perennial plants that grow from underground corms or rhizomes. They can put on such an early show because they have stored food in their bulbs from the previous year’s growth.

Don’t let their small, delicate appearance fool you.  These lovely wildflowers are tough.  They are perfectly adapted to the harsh growing conditions of early spring, utilizing the high levels of moisture and nutrients in the soil of deciduous forests at this time of year. Moist soil helps moderate the extreme difference between day and night temperatures and by growing low to the ground, they are out of the range of cold, drying winds.

These early wildflowers flower for only a few weeks; they need to complete most of their life cycle in the early spring before the trees, shrubs, and plants leaf out and take the available light. 

Since there are not too many flying insects active this early in the spring, many ephemerals are pollinated by beetles or ants. Others have evolved to look or smell like rotting meat to attract any flesh-eating flies that might be out early. Ants not only pollinate some of the plants but also disseminate the seeds.

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A sure sign of spring in my area is when the bloodroot blooms.

When you are walking in the woods keep an eye out for some of these delightfully delicate wildflowers and assume the proper attitude of reverence by getting down to their level to observe them up close and personal.

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1. Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) has leaves that wrap around the stem and bud, trapping warm air. The pure white flowers appear before the leaves unfurl and at night they close up to protect the center from rain or frost. Bloodroot gets its name from the red sap the leaves, stems, and roots exude when broken.

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2. Round-lobed hepatica (Anemone americana) is another early bloomer; its buds have hairs that act as insulation. It is easy to miss because its tiny flowers appear among last year’s withered leaves. The blossoms can be dark violet, white or a range of pastel colors including pink, lavender, and pale blue. Its flowers are self-fertile and don’t need an insect to pollinate them.

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3. Eastern spring beauty ( Claytonia virginica) has 5-petaled, white or pale pink flowers with dark pink veins and long, succulent leaves.

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Photo: Trout Lily. Credit: Gerry Bishop/Shutterstock

4. Trout lily (Erythronium americanum) is the earliest blooming lily, bearing small yellow trumpets with recurved petals. The purple splotches on its leaves resemble the markings on a brook trout, giving it its name.

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Photo: Dutchman’s Breeches. Credit: Mike Truchon/Shutterstock

5. Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) look just like white pantaloons hanging upside-down to dry. They are also called soldier’s cap or butterfly banners and are related to bleeding hearts. The upside-down blossoms protect the pollen from wind and rain. Only the female bumblebees with her long tongue, can reach the nectar deep inside the long spurs and pollinate the flower in the process.

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6. Red trillium (Trillium erectum) are all about threes. The plant has three heart-shaped leaves, three large red petals, and three green sepals. This has earned it the name trinity flower, but it goes by many common names including stinking Benjamin for its repulsive odor of rotting flesh meant to attract the flies that pollinate it and wake robin since it usually blooms around the time the robins return.

7. Starflower (Trientalis borealis) is a plant of sevens - seven leaves, seven petals, seven stamens, and even seven seeds in each capsule. These bright white flowers spread by underground runners and will form a nice carpet if undisturbed.

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Photo: Starflower. Credit: Matthieu Gauvain

8. Wood anemones (Anemone quinquefolia) have a pliable stem that can survive strong winds. Its white blossoms have no nectar or scent and the plant is wind pollinated giving it the common name windflower.

Enjoy them in their natural surroundings. Never dig them up and try to transplant them into your own garden. Many species, like trout lilies, take upwards of 8 years to flower. Just enjoy a walk in the woods and the chance to see these wildflowers during the few short weeks that they flower. As the name “ephemeral” suggests, their beauty is fleeting.

About This Blog

Get inspired by Robin Sweetser’s backyard gardening tips and tricks. Robin has been a contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac and the All-Seasons Garden Guide for many years. She and her partner Tom have a small greenhouse business and also sell plants, cut flowers, and vegetables at their local Farmer’s Market.