What on Earth are Spring Ephemerals?

Blog and photos by Stacey Lee Kerr

The longer days and slowly (but surely) warming temperatures in early spring are energizing. Walks in the woods at any time of the year in Southern Ontario are a lovely way to spend time in nature and de-stress. But taking a stroll beneath bare branches along trails that wind amongst soggy leaf litter can make you feel a little impatient for life to emerge. But then something special happens.

Look closer at those multicoloured piles of dead leaves and twigs, and you might spot little flecks of green, white, yellow, and other colours peeking through. As springtime brings along its rainy days, the shedding of scarves and mittens, and the last blackened snow drifts finally melt away, the forest floors across Southern Ontario come alive again.

“Spring ephemerals” is the title given to these early harbingers of warm sunny days. Usually, they begin to bloom in April and May. As their name suggests, these wildflowers are often seen only for a brief time spanning just a few weeks, especially in years where Ontario seems to leap almost right away from winter to summer. Once the forest canopies begin to leaf out, the fleeting bloom of spring ephemeral flowers disappear, their presence replaced by other species of plants in the understory. It’s an amazing cycle to observe and follow, with some of the most iconic and beautiful species of wildflower that we can observe in our province. For example, the white trillium (Trillium grandiflorum), our provincial flower and a widely-used symbol of Ontario since 1937, is a spring ephemeral.

But why do these wildflowers only bloom for a couple of weeks? The answer lies in the canopy of a typical deciduous forest. Early in the spring, the sun hits the forest floor and warms up the soil without any leaves to block those beams of light. Spring ephemerals bloom early and quick to take advantage of this excess light, growing up out of the soil, blossoming with their showy flowers to become pollinated – usually by ants! – without much competition. But when the trees above begin to sprout their leaves, that sunlight is blocked from most of the forest floor, and the flowers of springtime die back, leaving little to no trace that they were there at all. But don’t be fooled – spring ephemerals might not be visible throughout the rest of the year, but parts of them are still there below the surface of the forest floor. These are perennial wildflowers that grow back again each spring.

Many species take a very long time to establish the vast carpets of flowers that can be found in some older-growth woods. They spread slowly, taking several years of this cycle to become a common sight amongst the leaves and roots. By picking or removing these flowers from their home, humans can cause many species struggle to retain enough energy to survive through the following winter, and they might not grow back. So even though they might look beautiful as a display on your kitchen table, or as new additions to your backyard, it’s best to just observe spring ephemerals in their natural habitat and collect only photos, iNaturalist observations, and memories. But, if you really want to try and make your backyard garden a springtime oasis of native spring ephemerals, you can visit local native plant gardeners or nurseries to find seeds or cultivated plants to add these perennial beauties to your home.

Here are some examples of some common spring ephemerals you can find in Ontario forests:

 

Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum) – These somewhat droopy yellow flowers grow in big colonies of plants with different ages along the same spreading underground root system, or “corm”. Only the oldest plants will grow a flower! Their leaves are beautiful as well, with mottled green and brown patterns, which are said to look like the patterns of the scales on a type of fish in Ontario called the brook trout. They have a special structure called an elaiosome that attracts ants to their flowers to help disperse their seeds.

 

 

 

 

 

White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) – Probably the easiest wildflower for anyone in Ontario to identify, with its distinctive three petals and leaves. While usually they display white flowers, they can also be tinged pink or red. There are several other species of trillium in Ontario that you might see, including the painted trillium (Trillium undulatum), which has a dark red ring on the inside of its petals, and the nodding trillium (Trillium cernuum) whose flower dangles below its leaves.

 

 

 

 

Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) – Also known as wild mandrake (the Harry Potter version is a different, European species), mayapples don’t always sprout their single white flower, but when they do, it is lower down on the plant, hidden by its large leaves that look like little umbrellas on the forest floor. The fruit of these plants is edible in small amounts after it has ripened and turned yellow. However the rest of the plant, including its seeds and roots are toxic. It has been used by Indigenous peoples and early settlers for medicinal purposes.

 

 

Spring Beauty (Claytonia caroliniana) – It’s not hard to see where these little flowers get their names. The small flowers of these plants grow quite low to the ground, so if you don’t look closely you might miss them. Their flowers can be streaked with pink, purple, or blue, or might even be pure white. They grow from a thick tuberous root that is starchy, and is edible for humans, but due to its size is a better meal for small mammals like chipmunks and white-footed mice.

 

 

 

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) – The only species in its genus, the pretty white flowers of this plant are pretty variable in how they look – sometimes thick petals, sometimes thin, numbering 8-12 around yellow stamens. They have rounded deeply-lobed leaves that can be changeable too. But their common name comes from the red juices of its roots that is toxic to ingest. They are one of many species to be pollinated and have their seeds dispersed by ants!

 

 

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