Spring Ephemerals in the Shade, Part 1

Written by Mary Free, Certified Master Gardener
Originally posted March 2012


Galanthus nivalis (common snowdrops) 
Photo © 2012 Mary Free

If you have planted daffodils or crocuses, then you have grown ephemerals. Bulbs and corms produce a succession of colorful blooms from January to May. Once they complete their display, they retreat and rest underground until the next spring. [Do not remove their leaves until they yellow so that the bulbs and corms can store food for next year’s flowers. Deadhead daffodils and tulips so that they do not waste energy producing seeds.]

Miniature Ephemerals in the Shade Garden © Mary Free

In spring, the Shade Garden in Arlington’s Bon Air Park showcases many familiar, ephemeral miniatures (pictured) such as snowdrops, crocuses, dwarf narcissus, squills, grape hyacinths, spring starflowers, greigii tulips and Spanish bluebells. Like most bulbs and corms available in the retail market, they are native to other countries: Europe, Siberia, the Middle East, the Mediterranean region, South America, Turkestan and Iberia.

In the United States, though, the term “spring ephemerals” usually refers to native North American wildflowers whose natural habitat is a deciduous forest. Unlike other perennials, these ephemerals emerge early each spring, produce flowers and fruit and fade away, all within a couple of months. They grow quickly, taking advantage of more favorable soil conditions (i.e., higher moisture and nutrient content) and the sunlight available before the deciduous trees leaf out. As the tree canopy closes upon them, they enter a dormant period until fall when roots and a small shoot grow underground. Then they remain dormant again until the next spring when they are ready to emerge with a full floral display. Although short-lived, spring ephemerals can be stunning en masse or as specimen flowers. And when their foliage dies back, other perennials or annuals can fill the above ground spaces they vacate.

Claytonia virginica (spring beauty)

Claytonia virginica (spring beauty) © Mary Free

The Shade Garden is home to one such native corm, Claytonia virginica (spring beauty). Despite its adaptability, this ephemeral is not commonly found in a home garden. In early spring, delicate, one-half inch blossoms open on 3”-6” tall stems. The white, five-petal flowers are striped with pink and have hot pink stamens. Native Americans used the Claytonia corms for food—eaten raw, they apparently taste similar to radishes. They are best planted en masse in well-drained soil and allowed to spread. If you need to move or divide the corms, do so as the foliage fades to yellow. Once the leaves disappear, corms will be difficult to find.

Erythronium americanum (trout lily, dog-tooth violet)

Erythronium americanum (trout lily, dog-tooth violet)

Another native corm, Erythronium americanum (trout lily), produces yellow-faced petals with pinkish backs that look like miniature lilies. These delicate, nodding flowers appear (although not prolifically) above paired leaves in early spring. (Single leaves from immature corms do not yield flowers.) The timing happens to parallel trout-fishing season in some areas, and the gray-green-maroon mottled foliage happens to resemble brook trout markings. Together, these account for one of its common names, trout lily. This hardy, 4”-8” tall ephemeral prefers a well-drained, consistently moist soil.

More famous but fussy native ephemerals, Trilliums, sometimes are referred to as bulbs, but they are actually short rhizomes. In their natural habitat, they often form large colonies to the delight of those on spring nature walks or driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Some trilliums can live for over 70 years, but they also take a long time to mature—up to seven years from seed to flower.

Trillium grandiflorum (white trillium) courtesy of the National Park Service

Trillium grandiflorum (white trillium) is reputed to be the easiest to grow in a home garden. In mid to late spring, solitary stalks each bear a three-petal white flower that usually turns pink with age. The 8”-16” tall foliage fades in summer. It is best planted in a woodland-type setting, where it can multiply undisturbed and is protected from browsing by white-tailed deer. [It can take years, if ever, for the plant to recover from the damage done by picking just one flower!]

Because of their short life cycle, many native ephemerals are often overlooked and underutilized in home gardens. If you purchase native wildflowers make sure that they have been propagated in reputable nurseries and not harvested from the wild. Native species that are threatened or endangered have mostly succumbed to habitat loss (especially from farming, suburban development), over-grazing, over-harvesting, poaching or the introduction of invasive species. Be sure to ask about a plant’s origin before you buy it. Wildflowers like trilliums that have been raised locally are more likely to survive transplantation and to reproduce in your garden.

Next week: Spring Ephemerals in the Shade Garden – Part 2 features Mertensia virginica (Virginia bluebell), Phlox divaricata (woodland phlox), Uvularia grandiflora (large-flowered bellwort), Stylophorum diphyllum (celandine poppy) and Dicentra spectabilis (common bleeding heart).

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