Spring Ephemerals

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Spring Ephemerals

Categories: Blog, Garden Guru

The local, native woodland wildflowers are in the midst of their seasonal display.  These hardy perennial plants grow, bloom and set seed before their sheltering canopy of deciduous trees fully leafs out.   Their special flowers last only a short period of time and NOW is their time.  These plants hug the ground for warmth and their early foliage soaks up the bright springtime sunshine before the trees dare emerge — the plants are exceedingly tolerant of springtime cold snaps and late snowfalls.  As soon as the trees leaf out above them, and rob them of sun; they yellow and go dormant, storing energy in their roots to repeat the performance the following spring.   These marvelous plants are found only in the temperate, deciduous forests of the Northern Hemisphere — the only habitat that provides the appropriate growing season for them.

Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) are a perfect example of our local woodland spring ephemerals.  This is the first flower I remember as a child, as my mom took us to the local woodland park to see the spring wildflowers and I was 4 or 5 years old.  I remember her showing us how each flower is like a little pair of pants: upside down!  I have repeated the experience EVERY year since then to witness this marvelous distinctive display of floral treasures.  Gardeners will see how this little flower is related to bleeding hearts commonly found in local shade gardens.  The above image was taken in the woods behind the Chapel at Powell Gardens.

Trilliums are some of the most beloved of American spring ephemeral wildflowers and this is the Toadshade Trillium (Trillium sessile), the only one native over here in westernmost Missouri.  It has lovely patterned leaves and unique madder red flowers.  These “red meat” colored flowers actually give off a scent of rotting flesh (hard for us to detect) and are pollinated by tiny flies.   This wildflower occasionally comes in yellow as well.  This photo was taken along the woodland walk to the Chapel.

Here’s a picture of the bigger scene showing a whole family of Toadshade Trillium nestled in the fallen leaves along the walk to the Chapel.

Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) is also starting to bloom.  These 1/2″ flowers are white to almost pink with varying degrees of pink striping on the flowers.  This one is relatively pale but sweet none-the-less and don’t miss the TINY wasp on the far left of the center bloom!  There’s a whole league of unknown pollinators involved with our unique ephemeral wildflowers, many of them rapidly declining.

This little lily is the Prairie Trout-lily (Erythronium mesochoreum) an ephemeral usually found on prairies but can be found in open woods and woodland edges.  This flower will open up more with petals curving back like the “flying nun’s hat.”  A similar species, the White Trout-Lily can also be found at Powell Gardens but it grows in deeper woods and its foliage is beautifully mottled.  This image was taken just off the side of our entrance drive.

These delightful white flowers are of the Sharp-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba) — one of the few spring ephemeral wildflowers that actually has evergreen leaves.  Hepaticas are much beloved for their early bloom and becoming a horticultural craze lately with various flower colors (usually white but occasionally pink and blue) and leaves with varying patterns.

I’ll repeat the Wednesday blog entry showing that one of our seedling Hepaticas displays the coveted BLUE flowers.  We will certainly collect seed off this plant and propagate it!  Look for our Hepaticas planted along a few rocks in the Memorial Garden beside the Chapel.

Speaking of blue flowers this is another one of my local favorite spring ephemerals though it is not from woodlands!  It’s Bluets (Houstonia minima).  It comes from prairies and glades with lean (low nutrient or “poor” soils if there is such a thing in nature), acidic soils but has naturalized in some of the lawn areas at Powell Gardens (natures celebration that we don’t use herbicides on most of our lawns).  Look for wonderful patches of this native wildflower in the lawn south of the Visitor Center’s trolley stop.  You can also find it in meadows and prairie areas along our Byron Shutz Nature Trail.  It’s life history is that it sets seed shortly after bloom — the seed germinate in fall, grow through winter and bloom in early spring!  A biennial or winter annual.

Several ephemeral springtime flowering shrubs are also overlooked this time of year because their flowers are not as showy as say Forsythia.  This is the Prairie Willow (Salix humilis) in bloom and it’s a male with pollen laden catkins.  I tried to take some video of this (not sure why that didn’t turn out) so you could witness the buzz of all the honeybees and other native pollinators at its flowers.  Simply wow for its “ecosystem services” far more important to the nature of our landscapes than the color of alien Forsythia visited by nigh a single insect.  We all know how important pollinators are to our environment and producing the food we eat so consider this plant along with beautiful Forsythia.  Prairie Willow needs full sun and is tolerant of almost all soil types — it does grow quite tall but we cut ours back after bloom to keep it small and to have these long stems of “pussy willows” — yes they are cute and silvery furry when they first emerge but they open to the flowers you see above.  Look for these near the parking for the Gatehouse which you can see in the background.

NOW is the peak season of Daffodils (Narcissus species) at Powell Gardens.  Their large, showy flowers in bright colors are sure to lift your spirits!  Just be sure and take time to look at the other native spring ephemeral flora of Powell Gardens that may not be as showy but whose flowers in all sorts of unique shapes and colors really are visceral components to the spring landscape. As a botanical garden we display the best of both worlds to really deliver our mission’s message of embracing our spirit of place and inspiring an appreciation for the importance of plants in our lives.