Spring. It's almost literal. Winter drags on, and then one day, patches of flowers, sometimes entire colorful carpets, shoot up from the ground. These are the spring ephemerals.
Taking advantage of the sun before the deciduous trees and shrubs leaf out and cast their cool, dark shade onto the woodland floor, the perennial wildflowers dress-rehearse the coming season at breakneck speed. Triggered by the warming soil, they rapidly send up foliage, blossom, set seed, and usually disappear in six to eight weeks -- all before summer starts.
Snowdrops, crocuses, and daffodils are early blooming flowers that typically signal the start of the season. But prior to the industrial age -- when fewer of the country's natural spaces had been developed -- it was our native spring ephemerals that did the job in great numbers. Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), Virginia bluebell (Mertensia virginica), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), trout lily (Erythronium americanum), and squirrel corn (Dicentra canadensis) and its cousin Dutchman's breeches (D. cucullaria), among others, splashed gentle color everywhere.
Nowadays our exposure to these native plants is often limited to visits to botanical gardens such as the New England Wild Flower Society's Garden in the Woods, in Framingham, Massachusetts. At the seventy-five-year-old preserve, nursery director William Cullina and his staff maintain the wildflowers and companion plants of the eastern woodlands.
Virginia bluebells are Cullina's favorite. In his book "The New England Wild Flower Society Guide to Growing and Propagating Wildflowers of the United States and Canada" (Houghton Mifflin; 2000), he describes them as "not plants at all, but delicate clumps of sky, thinly disguised." At Garden in the Woods, he mixes them with yellow celandine poppies (Stylophorum diphyllum), showy trilliums (Trillium grandiflorum), and ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris), which cover the bluebell's foliage as it fades.
Cullina also says that trilliums of any sort -- which are rare in the wild and so have a certain mystique -- will enhance a grouping of ephemerals. The one-foot-tall northeastern native T. cernuum has a white, sometimes pinkish flower about an inch and a half across from late May to early June. The flowers are carried beneath a whorl of three leaflets, giving the plant the common name nodding trillium. The southeastern native T. cuneatum, whippoorwill trillium, is an early blooming trillium that grows easily. A beautiful plant with heavily mottled silver and green leaves, the whippoorwill trillium boasts a maroon flower that can turn reddish green. Cullina also favors trout lily and Dutchman's breeches. The trout lily's blossom rises a couple of inches above a pair of mottled, gray-green leaves. The flowers have swept-back, clear-yellow petals and dark-red stamens. Dutchman's breeches offers white blooms (each resembling tiny pairs of pants) above gray-green foliage. It will reseed generously in light shade.
Most spring ephemerals are species that evolved to take advantage of the month or two in late winter when sun, water, and warmth are available on the rich, moist woodland floor, often alongside streams. Once the leaves of taller plants expand and command the light and water, the ephemerals simply go dormant, reserving the nutrients they gathered and kept in their tubers, rhizomes, or other underground storehouses, and wait quietly until their time comes again the following year.
Spring ephemerals also have something special to offer home gardeners: the chance to see nature's beauty as it was meant to be. Anyone intrigued by ephemerals should seek out nursery-propagated plants; harvesting from the wild endangers plant populations and damages habitats. Local native plant societies can recommend reputable sources.
Cullina suggests planting spring ephemerals in early spring or late summer in the shade of deciduous trees. To prepare the site, gardeners should incorporate four to six inches of compost in four to six inches of soil. Moist, well-drained soil (slightly acid to slightly alkaline) rich in organic matter is essential. In each subsequent year, the area should be mulched with a layer of compost just before the plants are likely to emerge.
There's no need to set spring ephemerals in rows or otherwise organize them. They should appear free and natural, cavorting in scattered groups or moving in slow waves among your woody plants. Once plants are established, you can spread their floral bounty by dividing them in early summer, just as their foliage begins to wither. Spring ephemerals may come and go quickly, but they linger in the mind long after they're gone.