Got Shade? The Spring Ephemeral Garden 

It is April. Finally, depending on where you live, the snow is mostly gone, the days are getting wonderfully warmer, and the first flowers of spring are braving the cold nights and providing a source of nectar and pollen for the earliest of pollinators. Many of these early flowers bloom for a very short time and, surprisingly, many are found in shady forested areas. This is likely because in the forest they need to grab pollinator attention before the tree canopy fills with the leaves of summer, before the forest floor becomes dark and photosynthesis there slows.  

Once the canopy fills in, many of the forest floor flowers simply become dormant, disappearing beneath the soil, waiting till spring comes again. Ephemeral means “lasting for a very short time” and perfectly describes these forest dwelling plants. But though they only bloom for a short time, they are no less valuable in the garden if for no other reason than they are often the first signs that summer is coming. 

Because of the short growing season on forest floors, and thus the brief period they have in which to store energy in their roots or corms, many spring ephemerals take a long time to mature. Some, like Trilliums or Jack-in-the-pulpit, can take two or more years before the seeds send up their first leaf, then another 5-8 years (or more) to produce their first flower.  

Another thing I find fascinating about these plants is that many of them produce seeds with a fleshy, high protein attachment called an elaiosome. These nutritious little bundles are a favourite of ants, who cart them back to their dens, eat the elaiosome and discard the seed. This is an effective form of seed dispersal. I haven’t quite figured out why this strategy seems more common with woodland spring ephemerals than with other plants, but that, at least, has been my experience.  

Some of these plants are truly ephemeral in that they pop up, bloom, and disappear completely till next spring. These are plants like the Spring Beauties (Claytonia spp.), Dutchman’s Breeches and Squirrel Corn (Dicentra cucullaria and D. canadensis), the Toothworts (Cardamine concatenata and C. diphyllum), Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica) and Wild Leeks – aka Ramps (Allium tricocuum). The plants are not dead, though, they are simply hibernating belowground till the sun reaches them in the spring. If adding these to your garden, planting ferns amongst them will help to fill up the space once the flowering plant disappears for the summer. 

The Wild Leeks are a bit unusual in that the leaves come out first, collect as much energy as they can while the sun can reach them, then all disappear. A month or so later they will then send up a stalk with a small white globe of flowers that attracts early summer pollinators. By late summer these stalks will hold a head of black seeds and, if you know what to look for, you can collect a few of these seeds for your garden. But, like Trilliums and Jack-in-the-pulpit, the seeds can take up to 2 years to break dormancy, and several more years before they flower. And they are very slow growers so patience is required. (It is also the reason you should not dig them up in the wild as it can take many years to replace each plant.) 

Another group of plants usually lumped in with spring ephemerals are the ones I think of as “pseudo-ephemeral” because they flower early, produce seed, then fade into the background as just leaves and stems. These include Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum), May Apple (Podophyllum peltatum), Foamflower (Tiarella stolonifera) or the Hepaticas (Hepatica acutiloba and H. americana). For some of these, like the May Apple and Trout Lily, the leaves may persist through mid-summer, but are usually gone by the end of the summer – depending on how hot and dry the summer is. Others, like the hepaticas, hold on to their leaves right through to the following spring – giving them an early start at photosynthesizing as soon as the snow disappears. 

There are many more of these lovely spring flowering plants for your shade garden, of course, as well as others that flower through the summer and into the fall – violets, Wood Poppy, Zig-zag and Blue-stemmed Goldenrods (for the fall) and even Blue Woodland Phlox – but I’ll leave the summer and fall shade plants for another article. For some other spring-flowering woodland species, check out Blood Root (Sanguinaria canadensis), Early Meadowrue (Thalictrum dioicum), Large-flowered Bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora) or, if you have a wet enough shade garden, the exotic EXTREMELY early flowering Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) – which often starts blooming as early as February or March in my part of the country, generating its own heat and melting the snow around it. 

If you have a shady spot that gets early spring sunshine, you can brighten it up, even for a short while, with some of these lovely spring ephemerals. 

Happy Native Plant Gardening.