By Svetlana Wasserman
If you happen to take a woodland walk in early Spring, prepare to be greeted by a colorful burst of wildflowers carpeting the woods. These are collectively known as spring ephemerals, because they seem to explode on the scene all at once, while the rest of the trees and plants are just beginning to yawn and stretch their legs from their winter slumber. Then, in a few weeks, as quickly as they appeared, the ephemerals are gone, back to dormancy.
The spring ephemerals are at the front of the starting line in the spring race for the sun. They shoot up in early spring, March or April, before trees and shrubs leaf out and block the sunlight from reaching the forest floor. In a race against time, the ephemerals throw open their stomata, slurping up sunlight so they can grow, distribute their pollen, and produce seeds in their few weeks of available sunshine. These are the sprinters of the forest flora.
Don’t be fooled by their name. Spring ephemerals are actually perennials. They store their nutrients in underground tubers or bulbs. The few weeks in which they are able to drink up the sun are the only time they get to renew their underground food store for another year.
Resembling nothing so much as a row of pantaloons hanging upside down on a line to dry, these are lovely white flowers with fern-like leaves growing on rocky hillsides. Getting inside them to reach their nectar is about as easy as unfastening a pair of pantaloons. They hang upside down, with a hinged petal that must be separated to reach the good stuff. Fortunately, it seems that the Dutchman’s Breeches co-evolved with the bumblebee, its principal pollinator. Thanks to its fuzzy coat, the bumblebee is able to be active in the cooler months when this flower blooms, and it has the long tongue–or proboscis–that is able to reach the nectar at the base of the flower.
The most abundant spring ephemeral around town is the beautiful Trout Lily. The Trout Lily boasts a nodding yellow flower, and speckled leaves that resemble the flanks of a brook trout. It grows in thick colonies, some of which can be 300 years old! With that kind of timeline, the Trout Lily can afford to be a slow grower. In fact, it takes about seven years for the Trout Lily to flower. You may see single mottled leaves sprouting from the ground, but these do not have enough energy to produce a flower. It takes at least two leaves for the Trout Lily to make a flower. Look for this on your next walk, but be careful not to crush these beauties.
Left: Brook Trout, Right: Trout Lily
Spring Beauty Flower
Most of us have probably seen the small and delicate Spring Beauty Flower rising from between the blades of grass on our lawns. The Spring Beauty Flower grows from a thin stalk with grass-like leaves, and the flowers have five whitish-pink petals with fine pink stripes. The quintessence of ephemeral, the pollen-producing stamen of each flower is only active for one day!
The Spring Beauty Flower is not only beautiful, but tasty too. Native Americans would cook the 1”-2” roots, which resemble potatoes but taste sweeter. One reason this flower is so abundant is its ability to grow in areas that have suffered land degradation such as tree removal, lawns, or grazing. All it needs are a few trees. So if these hardy flowers are absent from the woods, that is a good indicator that the woodland was severely damaged in the recent past.
Be sure to take a walk in your local woods to catch the spring fireworks soon!