Spring ephemerals are delightful plants for the garden-just remember that they'll be gone in a few weeks, and design accordingly.
A few rites of spring delight us every year, especially if it's been a severe winter. Usually one day in early-to-mid April, my long-suffering spouse bursts into the house and announces with glee, "That liver-plant is almost ready to flower again!"
That liver-plant is more correctly called liverwort, or Hepatica nobilis. All but extirpated from the wild in much of its native habitats throughout our region, hepatica is a delightful plant and one of my harbingers of spring. When its lavender-blue flowers begin opening up in our woodland garden, I know that spring is beginning in earnest.
Hepatica is one of a number of unique flowering perennials that go under the heading of spring ephemerals. They pop up out of the ground in spring, flower, set seed, and then dwindle away as warmer weather comes on. This evolutionary trait has developed from countless years growing in hardwood forest areas. The plants flower while trees are bare or only starting to leaf out; as the tree canopy casts more shade on to the woodland floor, less light is available for small flowering plants, and they respond by going dormant until the next spring calls them to life again.
One important reason we have quite a few spring ephemerals and other early-flowering plants (including, unapologetically, dandelions!) in our garden is to help beneficial pollinating insects. Spring in Atlantic Canada can be a cold, treacherous thing, as farmers and gardeners especially know. Beneficial insects hatching or emerging from dormancy, need nutrients from flowers at the same time as they do their job pollinating crops that we use for food.
Sourcing these plants, many of which are native wildflowers in Atlantic Canada, used to be a bit of a challenge, and create an ethical quandary. They grow in the woods, so why not dig them up? Organizations such as wildflower societies do not advocate "wildcrafting," or digging plants up out of the wild to use in your garden; if everyone did that, native populations would disappear.
Most reputable nurseries propagate their native plants, including ephemerals, from seed or cuttings and do not wild-harvest the plants themselves or purchase them from companies that wild-harvest plants. If you have any concerns about this when sourcing spring ephemerals, just ask your nursery operator. As natives, including ephemerals, are becoming more popular in gardens, you'll notice more and more of them in locally owned, reputable nurseries.
Incorporating spring ephemerals into a garden takes a bit of work, but I like to compare it to planning around bulbs-which we can technically consider ephemerals too, as they bloom, ripen and go dormant as well. Since ephemerals disappear by summer, you want to put them in locations where their disappearance won't be noticeable, such as under deciduous shrubs. You can also plant later-blooming perennials near the ephemerals; these will fill in as the ephemerals go dormant, providing colour and texture throughout the gardening season.
One bed in our garden is planted under spruce trees, giving lie to the notion that little will grow under these trees. The garden features a number of ephemerals, including shooting star, bloodroot, mayapple, trilliums, Jack-in-the-pulpit, that hepatica mentioned above, and Virginia bluebells. It also includes a host of hostas, some daylilies, masterworts (Astrantia) and several shade-tolerant groundcovers: wood anemones (Anemone nemorosa), deadnettle (Lamium), archangel (Lamiastrum), and sweet woodruff (Gallium odoratum). As the ephemerals finish blooming and die down, these other plants are just starting to fill out and spread, and they provide a constant show of colour-not always bloom, but foliage colour is as important as flowers-right until frost.
Because most spring ephemerals are found in hardwood forests, this will affect your planting sites. They prefer humus-rich soil that doesn't get too dry, although, of course, by summer they'll be dormant and avoiding the worst of dry weather. Like flowering bulbs, however, they need to make their food reserves for further growth and flowering in only a couple of months, so the better growing conditions you give them, the stronger they'll be.
You may wish to plant your ephemerals under hardwood trees the way they tend to grow in nature, but may find the huge roots a challenge. One way to get around this is to plant in the pocket spaces around the roots, especially those close to the surface. Add some compost and soil to a pocket area and tuck in a plant, and make sure to keep it well watered for the first year while the plant is getting established.
One caveat regarding spring ephemerals-if this is the first year you plant them, make sure to either make a map with their locations clearly indicated, or put labels in the ground so you know where they are. Many an ephemeral has been inadvertently dug up in early spring or during bulb planting in the autumn by an absent-minded gardener. Yes, I've done this, over the years, but not recently. (At least, I don't think so!)
A bouquet of fleeting beauties
- Aquilegia canadensis: I love columbines of all sorts, including the showy hybrids, but it's the dainty red and yellow flowers of the Canada columbine that really make my heart happy. As a bonus, they are flowering about the time that the hummingbirds arrive, and are quite enjoyed by those tiny winged wonders.
- Jack in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is a strikingly unusual plant, and although it's native to much of the Maritimes, the only place I've ever seen it in the wild is in the woodlands of the marvelous Odell Park in Fredericton. There are many non-native species available for planting as well, although not all are hardy to all parts of Atlantic Canada, so check before you purchase.
- Spring Beauty (Claytonia caroliniana) graces the woods along the Cape Split hiking trail here in Scotts Bay, with its graceful starry white flowers marked with rosy pink lines.
- Toothwort (Dentaria diphylla also seen as Cardamine diphylla) is also known as pepperwort because its roots are pepper-flavoured. Dainty white flowers, sometimes tinged with pink, emerge in sprays above three-lobed foliage of this mustard relative.
- Dicentra cucullaria, known commonly by the charming name of Dutchman's breeches, are delightful with their lacy foliage and nodding white flowers that look like a pair of pantaloons blowing in the wind. Other types of Dicentra that are native elsewhere include the fringed bleeding-heart, D. eximia and the western bleeding-heart D. formosa, both of which work well as groundcovers although they'll go dormant in hot weather.
- Dodecatheon: Although I always encourage people to learn the botanical name of plants, at least the genus, I love some of the common names. This beauty is known as shooting star, and is well named. From a clump of basal leaves, flower stalks emerge with stems of lovely star-shaped flowers in rich magenta pink or white, depending on the species.
- Erythronium americanum: Known variously as dogtooth violet or trout-lily, these dainty plants have mottled green leaves and yellow flowers that look like miniature Asiatic or oriental lilies; other species have white or rose flowers.
- Hepatica nobilis, sometimes seen as Anemone hepatica is the liverwort or simply known as hepatica. It is all but extinct in the wild in NS and very rare in NB woodlands, but has been available commercially from good nurseries for some years. The liver-shaped foliage is leathery and somewhat evergreen, and it's one of the very first perennials to bloom in spring.
- Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) are arguably one of the most lovely of the spring ephemerals, especially for those who love blue flowers. In time they will establish colonies, but it may take a few years.
- Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is so named because its rhizomes are orange-red in colour. They tend to open their pure white flowers before their light-green texturs leaves are completely unfolded, and plant breeders have developed double forms as well as rose-pink forms.
- Trillium: There are a number of trillium species native to our region and available at nurseries. White trillium (T. grandiflorum), is the provincial flower of Ontario and a strikingly beautiful flower with pure white blossoms above the rich green leaves. Red trillium or wake-robin (T. erectum), has maroon coloured blossoms that nod rather than face upwards. Painted trillium (T. undulatum), is an attractive plant with smaller white flowers lined with red that I've never tried to grow in the garden, preferring to enjoy it in the wild locales around NS. For something different, try T. luteum, the yellow trillium (native to parts of the US but hardy in my garden), with blue-green leaves mottled with olive and curiously twisted yellow petals.
- Uvularia grandiflora: This charming ephemeral goes by the common name of merry-bells, bellwort, and occasionally wood daffodil because of its yellow bell-like flowers.