NatureSmart Column

Photos by Stan Tekeila ©2004

Spring Ephemerals

by Stan Tekiela
© 2004 NatureSmart
April 16, 2004

There are many aspects of nature that might remind a person of the changing season from winter to spring. The thick sheets of ice melting from winter chilled lakes, the return of migratory birds, the fanciful flight of the Mourning Cloak butterfly, or even the whine and sting of the years first mosquito. But for me, spring is trumpeted by spring ephemeral wildflowers.

Ephemeral wildflowers are a special group of woodland flowers. Often the average nature watcher might mistakenly believe that the first wildflowers of spring don’t emerge from the frozen ground until May or June. Not so with the group of wildflowers classified as spring ephemeral. Ephemeral flowers are so named because they appear above ground in early spring—they flower and fruit and then die back into the ground all in a short two-month period. Long before the trees had a chance to unfurl their leaves.

Ephemeral wildflowers such as Bloodroot, Cut-leaved Toothwort, Trout Lily and Trilliums emerge in April and are all gone by May or June. As a group they constitute one of the largest groups of wildflowers. By the time the warm winds of summer begin to blow, these flowers are long gone. Often unnoticed by the casual nature explorer.

This remarkable group of wildflowers has adapted to the rhythm of the trees that they dwell underneath. A rhythm tied to the soil moisture, soil nutrients and available sunlight. Not to mention a very important relationship to ants.

Essentially a spring ephemeral wildflower appears early each spring, before the leafing out of the deciduous trees in which it dwells underneath and when full sunlight streams uninhibited to the forest floor. Sunlight is one of the keys to the ephemeral wildflower. If the flowers where to wait until the weather warms up, the leaves of the trees would enclose the canopy of the forest and cut off any sunlight.

In addition to the sunlight factor, this is the time of year when soil moisture is at the highest because the trees are not actively soaking up all the available moisture.

Soil nutrients are also at the highest levels at this time of year. A considerable amount of decay from the previous year’s leaves took place last autumn leaving a bumper crop of nutrients in the soil. The spring ephemeral wildflowers have first crack at this abundant food supply.

There are many questions brought up when considering spring ephemeral wildflowers. The first is, how does this class of wildflower unfurl their leaves without any damage from unpredictable temperature extremes. The answer lies in the moist earth that buffers the extremes of the day and night temperatures. Plants can leaf out nearer the ground sooner than they can thirty or fifty feet above the ground. Supporting this idea is the fact that the earliest flowering ephemerals are shorter than the flowers that come later in the season.

In some cases, the earliest of spring wildflowers are not only close to the ground, but they have leaves that envelop the main flower stem to trap warm air, such as Bloodroot. Another successful strategy to trap warm air is to be covered with dense hairs such as the early prairie bloomer, the Pasque Flower. This flower is so heavily covered with tiny hairs it looks like it is wearing a fur coat.

Many of the spring ephemeral wildflowers have seeds that contain a special oil that is especially attractive to ants thus ensuring the ants will carry off the seeds. The ants store these seeds underground and the seeds often sprout before they are consumed by the ants. This is a great way for the plants to disperse their seeds into the surrounding environment.

Until next time...