Sunday, March 13, 2011

Ephemerals – here today, gone by summer

This is the season of the Spring Ephemerals – beautiful, colorful wildflowers that delight our flower-starved senses.  As their seemingly delicate petals pierce through the dead, dried leaves of winter, the juxtaposition of their fresh, new growth against the drab forest floor makes their beauty all the more amazing.

Sanguinaria canadensis, Bloodroot
Photo by Sheri George

Spring ephemerals primarily grow in deciduous forests.  Their growth pattern – new growth early in the spring – allows them to take advantage of the plentiful early spring sunshine before the trees leaf out.  From February to April, these plants send up above ground leaves, flower and set fruit while the sun shines through the bare twigs above.  As the canopy trees leaf out, the available sun diminishes and the plants finish this phase of their life.  If moisture levels are good, the foliage can persist for several more months.  But if the ground is dry or the air temperature is too high, the foliage withers for the year.  The underground structure, often a corm or a rhizome, remains alive, allowing the plant to stay dormant until the next spring.

Georgia’s forests have many spring ephemerals.  I will describe some of the ones near me, but there are many more throughout the state.  In additional, some areas like the Great Smoky Mountains have wildflower hiking trails that allow visitors to see these beautiful flowers both up close and in breathtaking views that contain thousands of them.

Trout lily (Erythronium umbilicatum) is the first ephemeral to flower in my area.  Hepatica blooms first, but since it is evergreen, it is not considered to be an ephemeral. Trout lily foliage and blooms emerge as pointed spears.  The spears easily pierce through the leaves on the ground. The dried leaves provide support for the delicate stems while the foliage appears to perch just above the forest floor.

Erythronium umbilicatum

As the trout lily petals fall away, revealing their dimpled seed pod, Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) emerges from the moist layer of fallen leaves. Bright white petals stand out against the brown leaves around them.  Some flowers appear to be alone, others are wrapped in a single leaf which unfurls over the course of several days.  The textured, blue-green leaf is every bit as striking as the flowers.  I enjoy the appearance of the foliage long after the flowers have gone, and a large patch of it produces a groundcover effect.



Trilliums (Trillium) are certainly one of the most well known families of spring wildflowers.  I think the name of the plant itself is so easy to understand that it sticks with people: Trilliums have plant parts in 3’s: three leaves, 3 petals, 3 sepals – it is a concept that even a small child can grasp.  Georgia naturally has more species of Trillium than any other state – 22 species have been identified so far.  The ones most commonly found near me are Catesby’s trillium, Sweet Betsy trillium, and Southern nodding trillium.  However, I can’t find any good pictures of those, so here is a picture of Trillium flexipes from a trip to North Georgia.

Trillium flexipes
Podophyllum peltatum

Other beautiful spring flowers that don’t stick around much past June: Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica), Toothwort (Cardamine spp. whose foliage is among the first to emerge), Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), and Woodland Phlox (Phlox divaricata)

Claytonia virginica

Mertensia virginica

Cardamine spp., Toothwort

But fleeting as they are, these flowers provide an important role: they provide early flowers for early pollinator insects. And for flower-hungry, winter-weary humans, they provide a cheerful announcement of Spring’s arrival.

Enjoy them while they last, and be sure to mark their location so that you don’t dig into them come summer and fall!
Phlox divaricata

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