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Spring Ephemerals—What Are They?

You may have heard the term “spring ephemeral” used to describe woodland plants, but what are they, really? Ephemeral means fleeting, temporary, and short-lived, but this isn’t exactly descriptive of the group of plants we call spring ephemerals. Most flowering woodland herbaceous plants come up early in spring and bloom before the canopy of trees develop leaves. They take advantage of the period of time when sunlight reaches the ground in the woodlands. These early bloomers provide essential nectar and pollen for bumblebees, mining bees (andrena bees), and multiple flies and gnats at a time when most other flowering plants are not yet available.

Most are done blooming by the time they are shaded by trees, and many of them actually die back to the ground for the rest of the year, hence the “ephemeral” connotation. In reality, these plants are only dormant and will return the following spring.

Some common spring ephemerals you may recognize are:

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica)

Sharp-lobed hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba)

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica)

Red trillium (Trillium recurvatum)

Celandine poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum)