Now you see ’em: Spring ephemerals

If you are like us, you’ve been using some of the milder days to poke around the yard and see the early signs of spring. Perhaps there are a few bulbs peeking up, or if you have a nice sunny location, early birds like Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) or Lenten rose (Hellebore sp.) are already audaciously blooming! There are many early comers called spring ephemerals, and they will be here one day, and gone the next.

In nearby parks and wild areas, the ground is warming up and early plants that quickly grow, bloom, set seed and then go disappear are also rustling. These plants, called ephemerals, use the strategy of quickly emerging before overhead trees leaf out, grabbing as much energy from the sun as possible, the disappearing underground until another season.

Some of the ephemerals are also great garden perennials and pique our interest in early spring before much else is happening. Many are Iowa woodland natives, but there is a real joy in using early bloomers to welcome spring, offer a food source for insects and fill in gaps that won’t exist once our later blooming plants appear.

Trout lily or Dog-toothed violet

Some of the earliest foliage and blooms to appear come from Trout lily (Erythronium), usually found as a yellow or white downward facing bloom. Also known as “dog-toothed violet,” the “trout” name comes from the attractive burgundy mottling on its low-growing, strap-like leaves. Especially on southward facing hillsides in the woods, carpets of these attractive leaves are a sure sign that spring is on the way. As temperatures warm and the overhead canopy becomes dense, the foliage may persist for a while but usually warmer, dryer weather puts these beauties to sleep for another season.

Spring Beauty (Claytonia)

Another trusty spring perennial that appears quickly is Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica), a tiny pale pink bloom barely as big as a dime with two thin leaves that could be mistaken for turf in another

setting. A surprising fact about Spring Beauty is that it has an edible tuber that was cooked by American Indians like a potato–albeit a very teeny, tiny potato–the tubers are about a half  to two inches in diameter. The delicate five petaled blooms are most often the very palest of pinks or white, and are a delicate introduction to spring!



Old fashioned Bleeding Heart

Bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis) is a frequent early visitor to Midwest gardens. Many of us have a sentimental attachment to Bleeding Hearts because they were plants we encountered in our childhoods. Available in the usual pink, and a white variety, the long graceful branches reach to three feet tall and wide. Newer gardeners may be alarmed when the foliage starts to yellow  and collapse in June and July, but this is just a sign of the ephemeral’s nature–when foliage starts to yellow, simply cut the whole plant back and and it will be back to greet you in the spring next year.


spring ephemerals, Garden's Grace

By Shawn.caza (Creative Commons photo)

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis ) is a childhood favorite as well. The pure white blooms grows six to eight inches tall and and is clasped with a fuzzy, scalloped green leaf. When the stem to the foliage or bloom is broken, a bright reddish orange sap emerges, hence the name “bloodroot.” Indians used the reddish orange sap as a dye. Caution is encouraged when handling bloodroot, as the sap and leaf can be caustic if handled too much. Sometimes the leave persist but the flowers will fade in about three weeks.


Last but not least is the colorful crowd pleaser, Columbine (Aquilegia). Our native  columbine found in the wood is usually Aquilegia candadensis, but for the perennial garden, there are several gorgeous varieties that offer early season color in blues, pinks, yellows, burgundys

and reds. Some of the cultivars, like the McKana hybrids that have a range of beautiful pastel colors and oversized blooms, the Songbird series with darker bicolor bloom choices the Barlow series, that don’t have the usual “spurs” but have denser blooms.

Whether you choose these early spring beauties for your own yard or simply enjoy them in the woods, they are getting ready to put their show on for the season and don’t blink–because when they are gone, they are gone until next year! If you’d like to get some help in picking out ephemerals that would work best in your yard, give Garden’s Grace a call today!


(Note: never dig woodland plants from wild areas.)

Blog written by Anne Larson, Des Moines area horticulturist and writer for Iowa Gardener Magazine, and a weekend associate with Miller Nursery.