Word of the Week: Ephemeral

ephemeral [ ih-fem-er-uhl ] noun: a plant that grows, flowers, fruits, and dies in a short period of time


In early April, the flowers of Mertensia virginica (Virginia bluebells) blanket the floodplain wetlands along Cedar Run at Merrimac Farm WMA in Prince William County, Virginia. Photo © Christa Watters

Some of the most popular and widely available ephemerals on the retail market are spring-blooming bulbs and corms like crocuses, daffodils, hyacinths, narcissi, snowdrops, and tulips. They produce a succession of colorful blooms from January to May. Once they complete their display, they retreat and rest underground until the next year. They are native to Europe, Iberia, the Mediterranean region, the Middle East, Central Asia, Siberia, and South America.

In the United States, the term “spring ephemerals” usually refers to native North American wildflowers whose natural habitat is a deciduous forest. Contrasted with other perennials, ephemerals like native Mertensia virginica (Virginia bluebells), emerge late winter to early spring, produce flowers and fruit and fade away, all within two to three months.

Non-Native Ephemerals

A succession of non-native ephemerals on display
in the MGNV demonstration Shade Garden at Bon Air Park, Arlington, Virginia.

Ephemerals 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 year when they are ready to emerge with a full floral display. Although their growing season is brief, spring ephemerals can be stunning en masse or as specimen flowers. When their foliage dies back, other perennials or annuals can fill the above ground spaces they vacate.

Native Ephemerals

Some plants described as spring ephemerals may actually just display ephemeral characteristics depending on their growing environment. Plants that may wilt and go dormant over the summer when exposed to too much sun, heat, or dry soil include: native Dicentra eximia (wild bleeding heart); its more well-known Asian relative Lamprocapnos spectabilis (bleeding heart); native Phlox divaricata (woodland phlox), which loses its fertile stems and becomes a low-growing, semi-evergreen ground cover; and native Stylophorum diphyllum (celandine poppy).

Ephemeral Depending on the Environment

The following articles–Spring Ephemerals in the Shade, Part 1, Spring Ephemerals in the Shade, Part 2, and More Native Ephemeralscontain additional information about specific ephemerals.

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