Text and photos by Elaine Mills, Certified Master Gardener
Two articles by Certified Master Gardener Mary Free recently described spring ephemerals that bloom at the Shade Garden at Bon Air Park, a demonstration garden maintained by local Master Gardeners.
Let me introduce additional ephemerals blooming in April and May. All are native to the Mid-Atlantic region, including hardiness zones 5 to 8, and prefer part shade and moist, humus-rich soil. They grow in local and regional public gardens, and I have successfully grown a number of them in the woodland section of my yard in Arlington, Virginia.
Thalictrum thalictroides (Rue anemone) is one of the first wildflowers to leaf out in the dappled sunlight of forests before leaves emerge on deciduous trees. This delicate member of the Ranunculaceae (Buttercup) family gets its common name from the fact that its three-lobed leaves resemble those of meadow rue and its flowers resemble those of anemone. The basal foliage is arranged in whorls, and white to pale pink flowers are borne on stems rising 6 to 9 inches above. Rue anemone can tolerate heavy shade and dry soil, and its pollen is enjoyed by various bees and syrphid flies.
Cardamine concatenata (cutleaf toothwort), a member of the Brassicaceae (Cabbage) family, is another early-blooming wildflower that will go dormant by late spring to early summer. Each 6- to 9-inch stem bears a whorl of three sharply-toothed leaves with a cluster of four-petaled white flowers measuring ½ inch across. This plant can tolerate seasonal flooding and will naturalize by rhizomes to form colonies. Its nectar attracts long- and short-tongued bees, and it is also the host plant for caterpillars of several butterfly species. It was used by the Iroquois both medicinally and for food.
Sanguinaria canadensis (bloodroot) belongs to the Papaveraceae (Poppy) family and is the only member of the genus Sanguinaria. Its common name derives from the reddish-orange sap that oozes from the cut rhizome or stems. It has white flowers with 8 to 16 petals measuring from 1 ½ to 3 inches across. Each flower stalk is wrapped by a deeply-scalloped leaf that unfolds as the short-lived flowers fade. Various bees, syrphid flies, and beetles feed on the pollen, but no nectar is produced. The seeds of bloodroot are dispersed by ants through a process referred to as myrmecochory*.
Dodecatheon meadia (shooting star) is a charming wildflower that begins budding in mid-April. This member of the Primulaceae (primrose) family first appears as a basal rosette of leaves and then develops a leafless flower stalk 9 to 18 inches high that is topped by an umbel of numerous 1-inch flowers. The white, pink, or purple flowers have reflexed petals, which give them the appearance of shooting stars. Bees are its principal pollinator, and they use a process called sonication or “buzz pollination” in which they rapidly vibrate their flight muscles in the narrow flower tube to forcibly release the tightly packed pollen. This New York Times article on sonication has an interesting video showing the process.
Dicentra eximia (wild bleeding heart), like its more familiar Asian cousin Dicentra spectabilis (bleeding heart, recently reclassified as Lamprocapnos spectabilis), is a member of the poppy family. Although similar in appearance, it is somewhat shorter, has lacier, fern-like foliage, and its heart-shaped flowers are smaller and longer. It can bloom from mid-April into early summer but will die back in hot, dry weather. Like bloodroot, its seeds are often distributed by ants, and it can also slowly colonize via rhizomes and self-seeding. Its floral nectar provides sustenance to long-tongued native bees and migrating hummingbirds.
Learn more about another spring ephemeral, Podophyllum peltatum (mayapple) which is this week’s featured native plant, by referring to the fact sheet under Ground Covers from “Tried & True Native Plants: Mid-Atlantic” tab on the web site menu bar.
The photos accompanying this article were taken at the Glencarlyn Library Community Garden, Long Branch Nature Center, the Native Plant Garden at The Nature Conservancy, Meadowlark Botanical Gardens, and the author’s home garden in Virginia; Fern Valley at the National Arboretum in Washington, DC; and Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania during March to May of 2015 to 2017.
* In myrmecochory
, ants are attracted to the nutritional elaiosomes surrounding hard, inedible seeds. They carry the seeds back to their nests to feed their young and discard the intact and viable seeds in a refuse pile from which new plants can grow.