In these early moments of spring while trees are bursting with blooming flowers, it’s easy to forget about some of the tiny flowers that rest underneath the trees on the forest floor. These tiny flowers growing amongst the leaf litter are often referred to as spring ephemerals. The word “ephemeral” means transitory or quickly fading. A spring ephemeral plant is one that pops up quickly to take full advantage of limited sunlight before trees leaf out and then set seed quickly before dormancy to rest once again.
If you look closely, here are a few of the spring ephemerals you might find on the forest floor. The numbers in the list correspond with the numbers in the photo above!
- Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis): Bloodroot is easily recognizable by its large white flower with multiple petals often with one leaf wrapped around the stem. Its name comes from the orange-red juices within the roots.
- Two-leaf toothwort (Cardamine diphylla): This plant can be identified by its four petaled flowers which bloom in a cluster on a single stalk above a single pair of toothed leaves, each divided into three broad leaflets.
- Harbinger of spring (Erigenia bulbosa): One of the earliest wildflowers to bloom! Often only an inch or two in height, harbinger of spring can be identified by its parsley-like leaves and tiny white flowers with contrasting purplish anthers.
- Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica): There are two species of spring beauty in our forests, and you can differentiate them by the shape of their leaves. Claytonia caroliniana has broad oval-shaped leaves, while Claytonia virginica has long and narrow leaves that look grass-like. Both have small flowers ranging from white to slightly pink with prominent colored strip son the petals, which help guide pollinators to the nectaries.
- Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria): Distinctive pantaloon-shaped white flowers dangle from small stalks. Due to the flowers’ nectaries being at the top of the flower, it relies heavily on bumblebees for pollination.
- Hepatica (Hepatica nobilis): There are many different color variations of the Hepatica species. You might find them in purple, white, pink, or other variations.
- Yellow trout lily (Erythronium americanum): This species has mottled purplish/brown leaves that pop up every year, but the yellow flower of this plant can take 5–7 years before it produces a bloom! Its name comes from the pattern on the leaf resembling the patterns found on native brook trout.
It’s always important to remember to slow down and take time to notice the little things! remember to be smart and stay 6 feet apart while you search for spring ephemerals in our parks.
Photo Credit: Stephen Bucklin
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