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Spring Ephemeral Wildflowers: Fleeting Friends of the Forest Floor

I love being in the woods at all times of the year. I’ll even gladly take the bitter cold of winter or sweltering heat of summer. But forests in the spring are exciting! A good month before most trees leaf out, another cadre of old friends return to our lives: spring ephemeral wildflowers. There is no better way to be reminded that the world is coming out of winter dormancy than to be greeted by these lovely blooms that grace our forest floor each spring.

Up close photo of a white trillium flower.

White trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) is the quintessential spring ephemeral wildflower. It is common in rich upland soils, but quickly disappears from forests that have high deer pressure. Fun fact: white trillium seeds are dispersed by ants, a process called myrmecochory. This improves genetic diversity in the population because plants are carried far from their parents. Photo by Ryan Davis.

Spring ephemeral wildflowers, as their name suggests, bloom for a short time each spring. As understory forest dwellers, they only have a short window of suitable conditions for aboveground growth between frozen ground in winter and full shade of the summer canopy. These plants bide their time underground as lowly root tissue for most of the year, and sprint to photosynthesize, flower, and produce seeds in the early spring when there is ample light reaching the forest floor. 

Part of the charm of spring ephemerals is their delicate existence. They rely on a fleeting period of a month or two to perform what other perennial plants take most of a year to do. And just like seasonal favorite snacks, it’s easier to appreciate them because they aren’t always available (I think I’d be happy to eat Cadbury mini eggs year-round though, to be honest). 

A single trout lily plant growing among the leaf litter on a forest flower.

Trout lily (Erythronium americanum) gets its name from the mottled leaves which appear right around the beginning of fishing season. It’s other common name, adder’s tongue, also refers to its appearance; supposedly the flower shoot looks like a snake tongue and the open flower resembles an open snake’s mouth. I prefer the name trout lily. Photo by Ryan Davis.

Far beyond their value to woodland-loving humans, spring ephemeral wildflowers are incredibly important members of our forest community. Our entire eastern forest biome relies on pollinating insects, who assist in the reproduction of around 90% of flowering plants (which comprise 80% of all living plants worldwide). Simply put, the world as we know it would come crashing down without pollinators. And in the early spring, when these crucial insects come out of dormancy, there isn’t much nectar for them to eat besides what our spring ephemeral wildflowers have to offer. Spring ephemerals are also valuable food for non-pollinating insects; many insect species can only digest a small range of plant tissues and thus form close relationships with certain species. And insects are immensely important in forest food webs; they convert plant material into protein-rich nutrition for larger animals, many of which are in need of nutrient-dense foods as they are coming out of winter dormancy and/or preparing for the breeding season.

A patch of Virginia bluebells

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) are found in moist, rich woodland soils, often in the floodplain. Their top pollinators are butterflies, which can perch on the edge of the “bell” to take a drink of nectar, as opposed to bees which would have to hover. Photo by Holly May.

You’ve likely heard about declines in pollinators. Sorry for the bad news, but spring ephemerals are also disappearing from our forested landscape. They are beset by habitat fragmentation, a lack of sustainable forest management, and most of all, an overabundance of deer. When forests are broken up by the construction of buildings, roads, or other infrastructure, the remaining ecosystem changes. Both abiotic (non-living) factors like light, microclimate, and soil moisture, and biotic (living) factors like predators, pollinators, and seed dispersers change rapidly, and deeper into the woods than just the new edge that was created. For plants that have such little wiggle room in every part of their existence, these changes can be catastrophic.

Two bloodroot flowers among ferns.

A cheery ephemeral with a spooky name, bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) gets its name from the bright orangeish-red sap that exudes from vascular tissue when damaged. Bloodroot is often found in colonies in moist forest soils. Photo by Ryan Davis.

Ideal forests for spring ephemeral wildflowers are ones that have few invasive plants, high diversity of native trees and shrubs, well-developed vertical structure (ie not just canopy trees but midstory trees, shrubs, and saplings as well), and a light deer population. We can achieve these requirements with persistent, scientifically sound forest management and persistent hunting pressure. And we must, or we risk losing these gems of our spring forests and the critters that rely on them.

To read more about sustainable forest management, visit forestsforthebay.org. For questions about spring ephemeral wildflowers, reach out to Ryan Davis, PA Forest Program Manager, at rdavis@allianceforthebay.org.

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Ryan Davis Chesapeake Forests Program Manager, Pennsylvania Office

Ryan is the Alliance's Program Manager for our Chesapeake Forests program. He focuses on forest conservation and restoration within the watershed in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New York.

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