Ephemerals a beautiful highlight of spring

Debra Strick

Spring ephemeral woodland wildflowers can inspire chlorophyll addiction, even in recalcitrant non-gardeners.

A group of perennial native plants that blooms after spring thaw but before deciduous trees leaf out, these tough beauties take advantage of a brief period of extra light to flower and reproduce. Then they politely defer to later-blooming species, some completely disappearing until re-emerging the following year.

As the name suggests, ephemerals appear to be fleeting, some blooming only for a few days, but many keep their foliage throughout the garden season with leaf drama that can become the main garden subject.

There is a lot to love here. Many ephemerals are easy to grow, have exquisite form, bloom when we're most desperate for flowers, and because they have to go through their complete reproductive cycle quickly, have a fast and fascinating love dance with pollinators.

At New England Wild Flower Society's Garden in the Woods in Framingham, Mass., the sequence begins quietly and then erupts in a riot of thousands of blooms and eager foliage as April gives way to May, accompanied by the spring song of favorite fauna.

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) are a standout. The flower buds start out a soft pink and then fade to shades of blue and violet as they open. When the dangling flowers are finished, the plant seems to disappear almost overnight.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is spectacular from the moment its shoots emerge, to its brief flowering, right through the season with beautifully notched leaves, making it a very special groundcover indeed. Named for the red sap of the rhizomes, if you transplant some, you'll see why they're also called "bloody fingers."

The fragrant heart-shaped flowers of squirrel corn (Dicentra canadensis) are much like its cousin's, the wild bleeding heart, but with white flowers, surrounded by lacy blue-green leaves.

Shooting stars (Dodecatheon spp) are perfect for moist areas and are easily grown in many kinds of gardens, both shady woodland and in open sunnier spaces. The gorgeous flowers remind me of badminton birdies (more poetic looking than it sounds) and after their few weeks of blooming glory go completely dormant, so mark them carefully to avoid digging them up accidentally. Different species can have white-, pink- and purple-hued flowers, and stems of varying heights, so try a few species together.

Spring beauty (Claytonia spp) is a dainty and lovely plant on Garden in the Woods trails that I have yet to try in my home garden, so I will join you this year in planting it. It's aptly named for its adorable star-shaped candy striped flowers that can handle part sun to shade, and the plant naturalizes easily. I'll try it in combination with my favorite hepatica (Anemone acutiloba), celandine poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum), Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) and trillium (Trillium spp).

Are you panting with plant passion yet? All of these native spring ephemerals join the spectacular woodland wildflowers unfolding sequentially in April and May.

"Native Herbaceous Plant Materials: Early Season," a multisession class taught by Tom Smarr, includes review of many of these plants, recommended for avid home gardeners and professionals, beginning May 14. Celebrate ephemerals, and the Earth, and join New England Wild Flower Society's Earth Day celebration on Saturday, April 26, for a free day at Garden in the Woods at 180 Hemenway Road, Framingham. Enjoy live animal shows, wildflower walks, scavenger hunts, face painting, and the early bloom of spring ephemerals - your new best friends.

Do you have a native plant or gardening question? E-mail the New England Wild Flower Society at Visit for details.