April and May is a time where the forest floor starts to come alive with native spring ephemeral wildflowers! Spring ephemerals emerge early in spring and complete their life cycle over a short period, hence the name ephemeral, meaning short-lived. Adapted to life in a light-limited forest environment, these plants flower before deciduous trees leaf out to take advantage of available sunlight. Like sleeping beauties, they return to their underground bulbs or corms come summer.
Spring ephemerals share a variety of interesting traits. They store food in their underground structures, allowing them to develop their leaves and flowers ahead of time during their so-called “dormant” months. Ephemerals also tend to have quite soft leaves – since water is plentiful in spring they can rely on turgor pressure for stability in their large cells, rather than investing in thick cell walls. Their seeds have a fatty structure called an elaiosome that attracts woodland ants, who carry seeds back to their nests, helping with dispersal.
Visit a mature deciduous forest like Wilket Creek ravine and you may be able to spot some of the mentioned species among the leaf litter.
Native spring ephemerals shown include:
- Yellow trout lily (Erythronium americanum)
- Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)
- Squirrel corn (Dicentra canadensis)
- Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica)
- Carolina spring beauty (Claytonia caroliniana)
- Virginia spring beauty (Claytonia virginica)
Photos and post by Katherine Baird, TBG Ecologist