Spring ephemerals are plants on a mission. They awake, leaf out, bloom and set seed all before the heat of summer begins to settle in. Then they quietly slip back into a long slumber to wait for the following spring.
It's hard not to feel a twinge of panic when ephemeral plants appear to be withering away each summer. Rest assured that the tubers, rhizomes and roots of these plants are tucked safely away underground, where they are resting in the cool shade of perennials that follow them. Their brief appearance has provided enough nutrients to keep them going until they next awake.
Let's take a look at a few of them:
Trilliums are one example of a spring ephemeral.
Trilliums growing in David Tomlinson's garden, Merlin's Hollow.
Large Flowering Trillium, Trillium grandiflorum is a wildflower native to Ontario. They have white flowers with three petals which are held aloft on a stem containing a whorl of three leaves. Their flowers are pollenated by ants, flies and beetles.
Trilliums are spring ephemerals that require patience. They can take up to 7 years to go from seed to flower. As the flowers fade, they turn from white to a soft pink. Trilliums require moist, well-drained, slightly sandy soil that is rich in organic matter. Full to part shade. Height: 20-50 cm (7-19 inches) USDA Zones: 4-9.
Trillium luteum in the garden of Marion Jarvie, Thornhill, ON.
The leaves petals and sepals of Trillium luteum also come in groups of three. The flower has three erect yellow petals with three greenish sepals. They also have a faint lemon scent.
Trillium luteum in the garden of Marion Jarvie, Thornhill, ON.
Trillium luteum is a clump forming plant with underground rhizomes that will gradually increase in size and spread slowly. The hosta-like foliage will die to the ground by mid-summer, especially if the soil is on the dry side. Plant this trillium in rich, moist, humus soil. Part-shade to full shade. Height: 20-50 cm (7-19 inches) Spread: 30-45 cm (12- 18 inches) USDA Zones: 4-8.
This is Bloodroot that I brought home last summer from my Mom's garden. I love the way the flowers emerge wrapped up in leafy grey-green arms. This plant gets its name from the bright reddish-orange sap it exudes when it has been cut.
Up the street from where I live there is a huge colony of Bloodroot and blue Scilla that has colonized a damp wooded area. The carpet of tiny blue and white flowers is the most marvellous sight each May.
Single vs Double Bloodroot
Trout Lily, Erythronium americanum
There is a wild patch of tiny Erythronium in the vacant lot next door to our house. I have noted that the little colony appears to bloom sporadically. This is probably because it takes four to five years for Erythronium to go from seed to flower. The corms of these wildflowers are small and crocus-like in comparison with the larger sausage-sized corms of modern hybrids.
Trout Lily, Erythronium americanum derives its name from its fleshy, mottled foliage. They have bell-shaped flowers in May. Erythronium americanum has bulb-like offsets that are easy to break off and plant.
These are the larger hybrids blooming in my garden. Erythronium 'Pagoda' is a more vigorous plant than its wild cousin. It is literally twice the size of the little wildflowers.
Erythronium 'Pagoda' has bright green, fleshy leaves with maroon markings. The leaves disappear shorty after the plant finishes flowering. Like their wild relatives, these hybrids like rich soil and a cool, damp spot in dappled shade. USDA Zones: 4-9.
Rue anemone or Wood Anemone, Anemonella thalictroides is native to the eastern part of North America. It has delicate white flowers and pretty green leaves. Like so many spring ephemerals, this plant likes the dappled shade of deciduous trees and rich, loamy soil that is slightly moist. They bloom for a period of about six weeks and then the plant goes dormant especially if the areas where it is planted is hot and dry. Height: 30-45 cm (12-18 inches), Spread: 7-15 cm ( 3-6 inches). USDA Zones 5-9.
Dutchman's Breeches, Dicentra cucullaria: The common name Dutchman's Breeches refers the the distinctive shape of the white flowers. This plant has lovely, grey-green, fern-like foliage (which rabbits dislike). It can be grown in average, well drained soil, but Dutchman's Breeches much prefers rich, loamy soil that is slightly moist. Dry soil will cause the plant to go dormant more quickly. Part to full shade. Height: (6-12 inches), Spread: (6-12 inches). USDA Zones: 3-7.
Shooting Star, Dodecatheon pulchellum in the garden of Marion Jarvie, Thornhill, ON.
Trust expert plantswoman Marion Jarvie to have something super cool like this Shooting Star, Dodecatheon meadia in her Thornhill, Ontario garden. When I visited last May, they seemed very happy on the outer edge of her garden pond.
Shooting Stars are a native North American wildflower. They have a low rosette of long narrow leaves and flowers on long, slender stems. The petals of the flower flare back giving the plant its common name. Fading flowers are replaced by fruit that dry into a woody seed pod each fall.
Shooting Star, Dodecatheon meadia 'alba' is a short-lived perennial that takes a year or so to flower. Typically they put on their best display in year three and then they disappear. Plant it in rich, moist soil. Full sun to part-shade. Height: 20-30 cm ( 8-12 inches), Spread: 15-20 cm (6-8 inches). USDA Zones: 2-9.
Shooting Star, Dodecatheon meadia in the garden of Marion Jarvie, Thornhill, ON.
Spring ephemerals are woodland plants, so its best to choose a spot that offers dappled sunlight in spring and shade in summer. These plants like well-drained, slightly acidic soil, mulched with shredded leaves.
These plants have evolved to take advantage of warming soil and plentiful spring rain. Though they like spring moisture, they are quite drought tolerant once they enter their summer dormancy. To conserve moisture mulch in fall with shredded leaves. Fertilizer applied just as the flower buds appear can encourage a longer, better display of flowers.
Plant spring ephemerals in amongst other plants that will fill in as spring warms into summer. Hostas and ferns are two good choices.
One of the biggest challenges with spring ephemerals is to remember where they are planted once they go dormant. It's a good idea to find a way to mark their location, so you don't disturb these lovely spring beauties.
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