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Camilla Care

Spring ephemera are a great start to the season

Vaseline 4 weeks ago

April is a great month to celebrate native plants. Recently, Massachusetts joined the growing number of states across the country to declare the first full month of spring as “Native Plant Month.” To me, nothing marks the start of spring quite like the fleeting blossoms of native spring ephemera: those crafty little plants that wake up early, bloom quickly and go dormant before summer temperatures get too warm.

‘Ephemeral’ means fleeting or short-lived. While the term aptly describes the way these plants “disappear” after flowering, it does not reflect the long-lived nature of many of these perennials. They return year after year, but spend most of their time as an underground stem, or rhizome, patiently waiting for the soil to warm. Ephemeral species start early to absorb all the sunlight they can before the trees fail completely and make the forest floor too dark for photosynthesis.

Native spring ephemerals are great additions to the garden if you want something that will spread. Ephemeral species spread vegetatively by the expansion of their rhizomes, which grow little by little each year. Many ephemeral species also have unique, symbiotic relationships with ants that aid in seed dispersal. After flowering, many spring ephemerals produce seeds with a small protein-rich appendage called an elaiosome attached. The elaiosome attracts ants who then carry the seed back to their colony where the elaiosome is eaten and the seed is left to germinate in the new location. Some of my favorite ephemeral plants for New England gardens rely on ants to disperse their seeds.

Virginia Bluebells

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) are native to the eastern United States and Canada, where they grow in the understory of deciduous forests with moist soil. They are one of the earliest ephemeral species to appear in the spring, with bright green leaves that resemble lettuce starting when they first appear. Shortly after the leaves, tight bunches of pink-purple flower buds appear. Their flower stems eventually reach 30-45 cm in height with bell-shaped clusters of light blue flowers. Flowers often fade to pink after they are pollinated.


There are four different species of trillium that occur naturally in New England: white wakerobin (Trillium grandiflorum), nodding wakerobin (T. cernuum), red trillium (T. erectum), and painted trillium (T. undulatum). However, one of the most notable trillium historically comes not from New England, but from central and southern Appalachia. Like all trillium, yellow wakerobin (Trillium luteum) has a distinct growth pattern organized around number three: three leaves on each stem, three petals and three sepals. Yellow wakerobin is a sessile trillium, whose flower appears to sit directly on the leaves, without a stem or flower stem. The leaves are mottled, with light and dark spots. Its best feature is the beautiful pale yellow flower that smells like lemon chiffon. In our area, yellow wakerobin usually blooms around Mother’s Day. It pairs well with Virginia bluebells for an early spring show of blue and yellow.

Wooden poppy

Poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum) occurs naturally in the western Appalachians, north of Michigan and parts of central Canada. The bright yellow flowers usually open when the last daffodils in our area have finished blooming. Like Virginia bluebells and yellow wakerobin, the poppy prefers a shady garden and thrives in average to moist garden soil. In my garden I regularly find new poppy plants in random places where they have clearly been carried by an ant, including those growing out of the bottom of my compost bin.

Dutch riding breeches

Nederlandersbroek (Dicentra cucullaria) is a cousin of the Asian bleeding heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis) which most gardeners may be familiar with as a perennial garden product. These cute little spring ephemera have finely cut leaves that emerge in early spring, followed by small flower clusters that resemble baggy ‘pantaloons’ hanging from a clothesline. Dutch breeches are important food for early emerging bumblebees.

Spring ephemerals are true harbingers of spring and make for fantastic, if short-lived, displays. With a little patience, many of them can spread throughout your garden, giving you something new to look forward to year after year. To learn more about spring ephemerals and see their colorful displays, visit a botanical garden or garden center this Native Plant Month and ask where you can find them!

Gardening Central Mass. was written by New England Botanic Garden at Tower Hill CEO Grace Elton and Director of Horticulture Mark Richardson. Located on 171 acres in Boylston. New England Botanic Garden creates experiences with plants that inspire people and improve the world. More information can be found at The column appears on the third Sunday of the month.