Growing Spring Flowering Ephemerals

  • 01 of 03

    What are Ephemerals?

    Photo: © Marie Iannotti

    Ephemeral means short-lived or lasting for a brief time. In the case of spring flowering ephemerals, the latter definition is more appropriate, since the plants don't die, they just go dormant - quickly.

    Spring ephemerals usually put in an appearance as soon as the weather hints at warmth and disappear when it segues into heat. In that brief period, they manage to leaf out, bloom, spread out a bit, go to seed and generally delight. You'd need a rest, too, if you were that efficient.

    Unlike...MORE so many other garden residents that die back in fall, they go summer dormant. The top growth may disappear completely, but the roots are still fine and they appreciate the cooling cover of later plants that fill in the spaces they leave empty.

    Many a novice gardener panics when these plants start to decline. I know I did. It does take a lot of faith to believe they are coming back, but they usually do. I say usually because I have had a few peter out. Let's just say they are gone missing and presumed dead. Hopefully, yours will have re-seeded elsewhere, but sometimes conditions just aren't right for them to continue where they were planted.

    On the other hand, some of these plants may just surprise you and stick around all season. In cool or damp summers, the leaves of plants like twinleaf and celandine poppy continue growing. The celandine poppies may even bloom again sporadically.

    The natural habitat for most spring ephemerals is a woodland, particularly damp areas like stream banks. They come out about the time insects return and provide a food source for them when little else is available. It's a symbiotic relationship since these insects pollinate the flowers and help spread the seeds. Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) may be no one's favorite spring ephemeral, but it has the ability to generate enough heat inside its flowers to raise the temperature 5 degrees F, melting nearby snow and warming and sending its rotten meat smell out to lure unsuspecting flies, desperate for a meal. There's no meat for the flies, but their visits are enough to ensure pollination for the plants.

    • Tips for Establishing and Growing Ephemerals
    • A List of Ephemerals Suitable for Gardens
    Continue to 2 of 3 below.
  • 02 of 03

    Tips for Growing Spring Ephemerals in Your Garden

    Twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla)
    Twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla)was named for Thomas Jefferson. It's common name is an obvious reference to the wing like twin leaves. Photo: © Marie Iannotti

    These are mostly wildflowers and they can take years to establish in your garden. Trilliums can keep you waiting up to 7 years, from seed to flower. If you think you have the patience and you'd like to bring their charm into your yard, here are a few tips and guidelines:

    1. Don't collect seeds in the wild without permission. To ensure they remain in their native habitats, they need to be allowed to self-sow freely.
    2. Buy and plant them in spring or early summer. You can also divide existing...MORE clumps, after flowering. Your best bet for finding good, healthy, nursery propagated plants is to check out native plant nurseries in your area. They will have the best selection of plants that will survive in your garden.
    3. Choose a woodland-like site. They need rich soil, spring moisture, and summer shade. Prepare the bed ahead of time with a 3 - 4 in. topping of compost lightly worked in. Although ephemerals love the dampness of spring, they don't like to sit in wet soil while dormant. Be sure the soil is well-draining with a fairly neutral soil pH.
    4. They look best in mass plantings, but you can get them started with a handful of plants. If you start small, you'll have an easier time of making site adjustments, if necessary.
    5. Plant things that will fill in after them. Hostas and ferns unfurl as the ephemerals are fading.
    6. Mulch or side dress annually with compost or shredded leaves. This is best done in very early spring ​before they appear. But if you haven't made an appearance in your garden yet either, it can also be done later.

    Here's a list of some ephemeral plants suitable for home gardens.

    Continue to 3 of 3 below.
  • 03 of 03

    Spring Flowering Ephemeral Plants for Your Garden

    Trillium grandiflorum
    You'll have to wait for the white flowers of Trillium grandiflorum, the Great White Trillium. Trillium are notoriously slow to bloom, but worth the wait. Photo: © Marie Iannotti

    Not all ephemerals are widely dispersed and your area may have its own distinct wildflowers, but here a few popularly grown spring ephemerals to consider for your garden.

    • Bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva Pursh)
    • Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis )
    • Calypso orchid (Calypso bulbosa)
    • Celandine poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum)
    • Dogtooth Violet (Erythronium dens-canis)
    • Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)
    • Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris)
    • Pasque Flower (Pulsatilla patens)
    • Rue anemone (Thalictrum...MORE thalictroides)
    • Sagebrush buttercup (Ranunculus glaberrimus)
    • Shootingstar (Dodecatheon pulchellum)
    • Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)
    • Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis)
    • Toothwort (Dentaria diphylla)
    • Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum)
    • Trout lily (Erythronium americanum)
    • Twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla)
    • Virginia bluebell (Mertensia virginica)
    • Yellowbell (Fritillaria pudica)

    Of course, you could always take a walk in the woods and enjoy them there. A wildflower treasure hunt is a wonderful springtime activity for young children. I'd recommend leaving skunk cabbage off the list, though.

    Additional Sources:
    Native Spring Ephemerals

    The Fleeting Beauty of Spring Ephemerals (Penn State Extension)

    Tips for Establishing and Growing Ephemerals