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Ephemerals:

Planting in Succession

Transient, fleeting, momentary…

They are nature’s harbinger of a new cycle. Just when you thought winter would never end, here come “ephemerals” poking their green heads up from the forest floor of leaves and decay. True to their name, spring-flowering ephemerals are above ground for just a brief visit.


Technically speaking, tulips, narcissus, hyacinths and other spring bulbs are Eurasian ephemerals, but it’s the native, woodland variety with their stalwart stems popping up over rocks and ruts that can be added to your landscape without a lot of fuss – especially if you have some trees that throw too much shade to even grow grass beneath.


Ephemerals do best where there’s spring sun and summer shade. Just as the tree leaves are ripening and sunlight can still stream through to the forest floor, a magical time exists where you may find yourself wandering on a woodland path and come upon a sea of Virginia bluebells. I was lucky enough to get some from my grandmother’s garden years and years ago and now they greet me each April as though she was here again welcoming me into her ample embrace.

But just like the little kid who couldn’t wait to squirm away, these plants disappear shortly after flowering. They don’t die, but good luck finding them. The top half dies back but their roots, rhizomes or bulbs continue growing under the soil to conserve energy for the following year. In fact, if they’re happy where you plant them, they’ll spread nice and slowly. (My bluebells are actually in full sun – luckily, sometimes plants defy description.)


Spring ephemerals are perennial woodland wildflowers: Jack-in-the-pulpit, Mayapple, Trilliums, Trout lilies, Dutchman's breeches and Bellwort, to name a few. (Click here for a lovely link with pictures and plants to purchase). They take advantage of the sunlight before the trees develop leaves. What I like about them is that once established in your yard, they take little to no effort. After the leaves die back you literally won’t see them again until next year.


And at this stage in my gardening game, that’s a real bonus.


Last year I came upon a colony of interesting little white flowers covering the forest ground where I ride my mountain bike. I dug out a few of these small stature/ large-leafed Bloodroots and brought them back to my garden. I planted them beside some hosta (which hadn’t even emerged yet) and was amazed to watch the big leaves curl up each night to protect the flowers. It was like nature was wrapping a big blanket around its baby each evening to keep it safe from the chill.


How happy was I to find about twice as many this year! They did really well beside the hosta because, as their leaves are dying back the hosta leaves are springing up and basically hide the brown ones – which is the key to plant succession. Timing. It’s nice to have a summer perennial like hosta, lily, liriope, roses or something that can be growing beside your dwindling ephemerals to hide the inevitable dead leaves. For as their name implies, these flowers will fade quickly. As soon as the summer heat sets in, they are but a distant memory, perhaps reminding us that our time here is also short.


So, if you get a chance to wander in the woods – spade in hand – this month, and you spy a shrinking ephemeral, be careful to get all the roots and possibly even a little soil to bring home. Check to make sure you’ve not dug up any unwanted little weeds in the vicinity or poison ivy – a pervasive woodland vine that hides as a shiny, red leaf in the spring – like I did, and start a little ephemeral garden.


Perhaps your plants will spread out under your trees or near the woods and you can pass them on to your grandchildren one day. Come to think of it, that’s the best succession of all.



It seems so strange to think of days

When I shall not be here:

When the winds will blow and the waters flow,

And I not even near.

When my roses bloom for other’s eyes;

And my birds sing not to me;

And the shadows fall from the cedars tall,

And I am not here to see.


O Wreniken! Dear little friend!

Make hay while it shines, my sweet!

Come down on the back of the old settee

On your dainty little feet.

Come turn your pretty head about

And sing and sing and sing!


There’ll be many a change dear Wreniken

When I have taken wing.

They’ll tear away the corner gourd,

And the old box over the door;

And the little old green watering-pot

Will be your nest no more.


Anna Bartlett Warner (1826-1915)