Early April last year, I gave my friend Bryan a tour of my Southend garden, just starting to burgeon with spring growth. He was a good sport and followed me dutifully around the beds. In the shade bed, I got especially excited about the fawn lilies just beginning to nod their delicate white and pink blooms. I bent down and pointed them out to Bryan, “Look! Aren’t these spring ephemerals sweet?” He glanced at the flowers, looked back at me, and, raising an eyebrow, said, “Aren’t all plants ephemeral?”
He had a point there.
But what I was talking about is a group of woodland flowering plants loosely categorized as “spring ephemerals.” As their name suggests, they don’t grace us for long with their lovely leaves and blossoms. They complete their whole life cycle in a span of six to eight weeks – an adaptation to light and water deprivation once the tree canopy above them fills in. In early spring, they leaf out and flower; they pollinate; they set seed; and then with a tiny yawn, they go to sleep for the rest of the growing season. And wake up again the following spring.
I grow a few spring ephemerals in my garden, all that do just fine in dappled or partial shade and moist, humus-rich soil. Hands down, my favorites – the ones I so proudly pointed out to Bryan – are the fawn lilies, also called dog’s-tooth violets or trout lilies. Our two native fawn lilies in the Pacific Northwest, Erythronium oregonum and Erythronium revolutum, boast marbled foliage and graceful white and pink lily-shaped flowers. Over time they disperse their seeds and multiply their loveliness. Another fawn lily, a hybrid called ‘Pagoda’, has pale yellow flowers and might be easier to grow. It has large glossy leaves also mottled.
The native bleeding heart, Dicentra formosa, is a cinch to cultivate. Its delicate fern-shaped leaves appear first followed by pink, dangling heart-shaped flowers. Bleeding heart self seeds freely so you will have some to offer your friends before long. The wood anemone, or Anemone nemorosa, is a low-grower with deeply cut leaves, sweet single flowers of light blue, pink, or white, and the ability to increase nicely over a few seasons.
Although I don’t have any in my garden to speak of, I love what must be the most emblematic of spring ephemerals – the trillium. And I marvel at the sight of our native Trillium ovatum, or wake-robin, carpeting a garden or forest woodland floor – a wonder that deepens with the knowledge that it takes a good seven years to see a trillium develop from seed to blossom.
This spring as I observe these woodland sweethearts coming into their own, I remember Bryan’s question, chuckle, and then pause: Ephemeral indeed. Isn’t it all?
Closing thought: While it may be tempting to dig up wild-growing spring ephemerals, PLEASE don’t. They are already on the decline in the wild. And besides, I’m told, they don’t transplant well. Instead source them at local nurseries.