By Cheryl Harrison, Master Gardener
Definitions of “spring” and “ephemeral”, curtesy of Merriam-Webster online dictionary, are “to come into being” and “lasting a very short time”. Two wonderful words, when used together, mean those lovely but short-lived flowers that we may see on our walks through woodland gardens or deciduous forests at this time of year!
My list of favourite spring ephemerals includes:
Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) – Of course, this native plant comes to mind first. It is Ontario’s official flower but not Ontario’s only trillium … there are four other native species. Trillium grandiflorum produces one large, white, three-petaled flower above three, simple, broad leaves. The flower fades to pale pink as it ages. Red seeds are produced which are mainly dispersed by……ants! Seeds germinate slowly and take 4-5 years to become a mature flowering plant. Plants grow to reach 30-45 cm (12-18 in.) high, prefer moist rich soil and dappled shade.
Dog-toothed violet (Erythronium americanum) – These pretty little native flowers grow from a corm. They are small, just 15 cm (6 in.) high but their bright, yellow flowers stand out and along with their spotted leaves (hence their other common name “Trout Lily”), are one of the earliest spring ephemerals to appear. They prefer rich, moist but well-drained soil and part to full shade.
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) – If you remember your high school latin, you will recognize where Sanguinaria originates when you learn that all parts of this native contains an orange/red juice. The Latin sanguinarius means “bloody”. S. canadensis is the only species in this genus. It produces a white flower, that may be tinged in pink, and has deeply lobed, flat leaves. It prefers part to full shade and well drained, moist, rich soil but seems to survive in varying soil conditions. This plant will grow under your black walnut tree! S. canadensis grows 15-30 cm (6-12 in.) high and spreads through rhizomes.
Mayapple (Polophyllum peltatum) – Mayapple makes a great groundcover. It grows up to 45 cm (1.5 ft.) tall and produces one white flower which appears under it’s umbrella-like, multi-lobed, two leaf foliage in late spring…..a single leaf means no flower and no fruit. The leaves and root are poisonous as is the immature green fruit. Only the mature yellow fruit is edible. This plant spreads through rhizomes, prefers light shade and moist, rich soil.
Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema tryphyllum) – Where do I start; this plant has a very interesting flower …. the spathe is the most conspicuous part. It is a hooded, tube-like structure and houses the spadex which is a spike and is where the actual flowers are located. Clusters of bright, red berries form in the fall. It grows 30-90 cm (1-3 ft.) tall and prefers moist, rich, slightly acidic soil and part to full shade. Jack-in-the-pulpit grow from corms.
Next time you go for your woodland walk look for the spring ephemerals. Their appearance signals that warmer weather is coming very soon! Let the gardening season begin!
Many nurseries now carry native plants and some specialize in natives. Just be sure to ask about the origin of the plants that you are buying, you are looking for plants that have been nursery propagated not harvested from the wild.
- The Ontario Naturalized Garden, by Lorraine Johnston ISBN1-55110-305-2
- Edible Wild Food
- Mayapple and maidenhair fern flourish in woodland garden
- Ontario’s Trilliums
- Ontario Wildflowers
- Sanguinaria canadensis