by Judy Funderburk, Master Gardener

Spring Ephemerals:  It’s the time of year when Gardeners talk enthusiastically about “Spring Ephemerals,” using this term to describe native wildflowers, such as Virginia Bluebells, Trout Lily, Toothwort, Spring Beauty, Bloodroot, Trillium and Woodland Phlox. The word ‘ephemeral’ often means short-lived, but in the case of native plants, transitory is more accurate.  Ephemerals don’t die. These spring-appearing plants grow leaves, bloom, and set seed in a month or two. Then they go dormant.  They just disappear underground until next spring when they will reappear to take advantage of that short period between snow-melt and leaf-out when sunlight reaches down through bare branches to warm the earth, before deciduous trees put on their leafy spring dresses and steal the ephemerals light and moisture.

Sessile Trillium also called Toadshade found in the Woodland Shade Section of the Library Garden.

Sessile Trillium also called Toadshade found in the Woodland Shade Section of the Glencarlyn Library Garden.

For flower starved nature lovers, especially after a long cold winter, there is nothing more exciting than walking in a woods or garden and coming upon the beautiful blossom of the white trillium called Wake Robin (Trillium grandiflorum), or the maroon trillium called Toadshade (Trillium sessile), or the nodding bell-shaped yellow flower of the Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum) poised between two mottled leaves.  [The uniquely mottled and spotted leaves were thought to resemble brook trout and gave rise to this ephemeral’s common name.]

In Arlington County you can see some of these ephemerals growing in two Master Gardener of Northern Virginia (MGNV) Demonstration Gardens: The Shade/Quarry Garden and the Glencarlyn Library Community Garden.  For locations look at the MGNV website,

Early Spring Minor Bulbs:  You have probably delighted in colorful crocuses, but have you heard of Siberian Squill, Puschkinia, Glory-of-the-Snow, Grape Hyacinth, Dwarf Netted Iris, Snowdrops, or Winter Aconite?  These very early spring blooming minor bulbs can bring great pleasure when winter’s grey and brown still hold sway over most of the landscape.

Siberian Squill, a gift from Captain Shepherd's yard where these beautiful blue flowers bloomed each spring.

Siberian Squill have beautiful blue flowers each spring.

Glory-of-the-Snow (Chionodoxa luciliae) and Siberian squill (Scilla siberica) each produce 4 to 6” tall spikes of beautiful blue flowers.  Glory of the Snow tends to be a bit lighter in color with flowers facing upward, while Siberian squill is deep deep blue with nodding flowers.  Both prefer woodland settings with some sun.

Puschkinia (Puschkinia scilloides), sometimes called Striped Squill, is very like the two bulbs listed above, but a bit lighter in color with tighter flower clusters.  It will thrive in deep shade or in part sun and is one of the earliest to bloom.

Grape hyacinth (Muscari botryoides) bear blue flowers that resemble small urns attached to spikes six to nine inches in height. Its flowers are slightly scented and appear in early spring.  A bag of these small bulbs planted 3 inches deep in the fall will easily grow and, in a few years, multiply into good-sized clumps.  Grape hyacinth pairs well with yellow cultivars of the larger flowered Dutch bulbs such as narcissus and tulip.

Dwarf Netted Iris (Iris reticulata) is another early bloomer, about 7 inches tall with deep purple flowers ornamented by yellow markings. A native of the Caucasus, the flowers are stunning in early spring.  The plant goes dormant and disappears come the heat of summer.  To flourish, the small bulbs need well-drained soil, some sun and a period of near-drought in the summer.

Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) produces yellow buttercup-like flowers that appear in late winter and early spring. Its Latin meaning is Greek for ‘spring flower,’ and cold winters seem to bring the best show of flowers.  Winter aconite grows to about 4 inches and tends to reseed once established. It has attractive deep green foliage and will grow in full sun or partial shade but prefers cool temperatures.  The only unattractive feature of this early blooming minor bulb is that the whole plant is extremely poisonous, so beware if you have pets or young children. [To see a gorgeous stand of these beauties, visit Green Spring Garden Park, near the handicap-parking circle, in the next few weeks.]

Virginia Bluebells

Virginia Bluebells

Writing this article has made me aware that the Glencarlyn Library Garden in Arlington where I volunteer as a Master Gardener does not have many of these minor bulbs (three: Snowdrops, Siberian Squill and Grape Hyacinth) in its collection.  I have made a note to “purchase more minor bulbs for 2015 fall planting!”  After these past two very cold and snowy winters, by planning ahead and planting next fall, we hope that the Spring of 2016 will bring forth lots more early blooming spring flowers for the enjoyment of the neighborhood and all patrons of the Glencarlyn Library and its Community Garden.   Perhaps you’d like to do the same in your own garden!

Originally published in “The Village View” Glencarlyn Citizens’ Association Newsletter

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