5 Spring Ephemeral Wildflowers in the Appalachians
by MK Brown, Ecotour Guide and Naturalist
As the sun starts to warm the still trees on south facing slopes and black bears rouse from their slumber and the spring peepers commence their evening chorus, the forest begins to come alive once more. The heavy cloak of winter’s chill is finally lifting off. This miraculous intervention is one we have all been eagerly awaiting here in Southern Appalachia, springtime! There is a flurry of activity in the forest between the warming of the frozen ground and the leaf out of trees. One of the earliest harbingers of spring is the early blooming plants known as ephemeral wildflowers.
These delightful woodland herbs of deciduous forests have a very short window of time to emerge, photosynthesize and reproduce before the canopy closes with tree leaf-out, reducing the amount of available light to the forest floor where they dwell. The spring ephemerals are known as such due to their short but curious life cycle. After flowering, they lose all of their above ground vegetation, retreating back underground where they store all of their energy in thick roots or bulbs. Don’t let their disappearing act fool you however, these plants are long lived, blooming year after year. Many other native wildflowers bloom in early spring but are not considered true ephemerals because their leaves persist either partially or year round and remain active for most of the growing season. Violets, trilliums and some lilies fall into this category.
What does Ephemeral mean?
According to Merriam-Webster, the term ephemeral is defined as lasting a very short time. The earliest uses of the word in English appeared in medicine, referring to short-term fevers. Eventually the term came to be associated with organisms that have very short life spans. A line by the famous poet Robert Frost encompasses such brevity of life in the forest, ‘Nature’s first green is gold, Her hardest hue to hold. Her early leaf’s a flower; but only so an hour.’ The native wildflowers of early spring have a big job to do in a very short time. They burst forth with striking variations of color, shape and size and wither with the same abruptness-their heyday ending when the canopy closes above them.
How do these plants bloom so early?
There is no actual date on a calendar that determines the right time for ephemerals to emerge from underground but nature’s biological clock never skips a beat. Leaf out varies from year to year and is more dependent on the cumulative thermal heat available after an obligatory cold period has abated, i.e., winter, and the length of day. It is a risky game with high stakes that the earliest plants of spring have to play. The plant must accelerate its metabolism and shoot up from below ground without knowing if the weather will be favorable enough for it to perform its necessary functions in order to survive. While the majority of other forest plants, like deciduous trees, are slow to come out of dormancy and start growing new vegetation, the ephemeral wildflowers take advantage of increased sunlight and have a high rate of photosynthesis as well as specialized sex organs that reflect visible light and radiate sunlight onto them, thus speeding up their development. They also utilize the high levels of moisture and nutrients in the soil at this time of year. Moist soil helps moderate the extreme difference between day and night temperatures with some even closing up their flowers at night to safeguard against freezing temps. And by growing low to the ground, they are protected from the cold, drying winds that permeate through the leafless forest in early spring. These wildflowers also rely on the duff layer of the forest floor to shelter their tubers, rhizomes or corms throughout the year. During the fall and winter these underground organs send up shoots into the leaf litter to take in nutrients and water which in turn gives them a head start to begin growing when conditions are favorable in the spring.
Who Pollinates Ephemeral Flowers?
After a long period of dormancy in the forest for both plants and animals, ephemeral flowers are often the first to bloom and produce nectar for hungry pollinators in early spring. They are a critical source of nectar and pollen for bumblebees, miner bees, some early season skippers, gnats, and flies among other things. Most of the spring ephemeral plants are relatively small and therefore must spend a considerable amount of energy into making showy blooms. Some species of ephemerals do not even bother producing nectar like the bloodroot, but the pollen is still a good source of protein and amino acids for bees with lots of mouths to feed. Other ephemeral flowers like the spring beauties and trout lilies, play a crucial role to miner bees, in the Andrena genus, that have evolved to only feed on their pollen as the bees cannot digest the pollen of other plants as easily. Many of our native bee species are specialists of this kind and rely on a small group of plants to survive.
Ants also play a critical role in the perpetuation of these wildflowers. A fascinating mutually beneficial relationship among spring ephemerals and ants formed over millennia in a process called myrmecochory, whereas the ant receives a nutritious snack from the fleshy outer portion of the seed or elaiosome, and the plant receives greater dispersal of their seeds, albeit a short distance, perhaps only up to two meters from the parent plant. It is, however, far enough away that the parent plant does not have to compete with their ‘offspring’ for sunlight and other nutrients. Elaiosomes are shaped somewhat like the handle of a tea cup, making it easier for ants to transport the seed back to their nest. The rest of the inedible parts of the seed are discarded along with other organic matter in the ants nest and then germinates easily in the fertile soil of the ants compost pile. Many ephemeral wildflowers rely on these native ant species to disperse their seeds including the bloodroot and trout lily.
A few Ephemerals unique to this bioregion:
1. Spring beauty
Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) is one of the earliest ephemerals to bloom, anywhere from mid to late February and continuing into May. Standing only three to four inches tall, these flowers are small but hard to miss! Spring beauty has five white petals with stripes of pink, two green sepals, and five stamens with pink anthers. Spring beauty grows on rich wooded slopes all throughout Appalachia and is beloved by all who encounter it.
The ramp or wild leek (Allium tricoccum) is a highly sought after culinary delicacy, even having multiple festivals across much of Southern Appalachia dedicated to this humble forest herb. In early spring its tubers are harvested and used in tasty dishes at high end restaurants and by local ramp enthusiasts alike. It is described as tasting like a sweet spring onion with a powerful garlic odor. The two to three broad leaves of this plant appear in April on rich wooded slopes at elevations of 1,500 to 4,000 feet and die back just as the flower stalk appears, producing its white cluster like flowers in early summer. Due to its growing popularity, ramps have been overharvested leading to it becoming scarce in some areas of Appalachia. If you get the opportunity to buy or taste ramps ask if they were sustainably harvested before purchasing.
3. Trout Lily
The trout Lily (Erythronium americanum) has many names, adder’s tongue, fawn lily and dogtooth violet being a few, however once you discover it in bloom it is hard to forget this charming woodland herb. The trout lily’s six to eight inch leaves first appear in early February with the flowers emerging in March in some areas. The mottled coloring of the leaves resemble the markings on the speckled mountain trout lending to one of its more widely accepted common names. Its flower, on the other hand, is more like a shooting star with six bright yellow petals and dark red stamen. The trout lily is widely distributed at lower elevations in mature deciduous forest but sometimes can be found as high as 6,000 feet! These ephemerals often colonize large swaths of forest floor however growth of this nature is extremely slow, taking many many years for large colonies to form.
4. Dutchman’s breeches
Dutchman’s-breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) is a uniquely shaped ephemeral that gets its common name from its waxy, white flowers resembling an upside down pair of pants or breeches. Flowers are arranged in rows on a leafless stem arching above the fern-like leaves and can be seen in April and May. This rather rare wildflower is found on wooded slopes, in valleys and alongside streams in elevations anywhere from 900 to 5,000 feet. Another similar and closely related ephemeral is the Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis). Named for the yellow bulbs on its roots that resemble corn kernels and loaded with nutrients that squirrels have been said to enjoy.
One of the most spectacular spring ephemerals you can find in Southern Appalachia is bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis). In late winter to early spring, a tightly rolled single leaf emerges from the soil and slowly unfurls. The stem rises through an open space at the base of the accompanying leaf and slender white petals of the flower appear in mid march. The rhizome and its rootlike stems contain an orange-red sap which appears to “bleed” if punctured. The scientific name, Sanguinaria, comes from the latin term for blood (sanguis). The plant has been used in traditional medicines by the Cherokee and other American Indian tribes as well as by white settlers to treat fever, rheumatism, ulcers and skin infections to name a few. It is also used as a natural dye. The main active component of bloodroot is an alkaloid called sanguinarine, which is a potent antiseptic and anti-inflammatory. It also has been used commercially in toothpaste and mouthwash. However, bloodroot is considered too toxic to use internally and ingestion of bloodroot is not recommended.
It is with great anticipation and joy we await the arrival of ephemeral flowers in Southern Appalachia every spring. Aside from their beauty, each species plays a vital role in its ecosystem and is intricately woven into the fabric of the landscape. Unfortunately, our love for and fascination with the natural world has created additional pressures on our public lands and the native plants that inhibit them. With so many people flocking to the mountains of Western North Carolina every year just to get a glimpse of these exquisite flowers, there is an ever growing need to protect them and their natural habitat. It takes a very long time for spring ephemeral wildflowers to get established-a seedling can take more than six years to grow into a mature plant! And with such a short distance of seed dispersal, any disturbance of the forest is a threat to spring ephemerals. Once they are gone, they rarely return. In order to keep these delicate creatures around for us as well as future generations to enjoy, always remember to stay on trail, take only memories, and follow the 7 Principles of Leave No Trace.
Our spring series of Community Hikes, including Wildflower and Birding Walks, are some of our favorite tours all year so don’t wait and miss out on the opportunity to see these glorious plants that show themselves for but a brief moment in time!
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Campbell, Hutson, & Sharp. Great Smoky Mountains Wildflowers, Fifth Edition. 1995.
Frick-Ruppert, Jennifer. Mountain Nature: A Seasonal Natural History of the Southern Appalachians. 2010.
N.C Cooperative Extension (2023). Sanguinaria canadensis. https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/sanguinaria-canadensis/
Appalachian Mountain Club (2021). Marcus, Debbie. Nature Finds a Way: The Miracle of Spring Ephemeral Wildflowers in Northern Forests. https://www.outdoors.org/resources/amc-outdoors/conservation-and-climate/nature-finds-a-way-the-miracle-of-spring-ephemeral-wildflowers-in-northern-forests/
The Natural Web (2020). A Spring Ephemeral Ecosystem That Hosts Butterflies. https://the-natural-web.org/2020/04/16/a-spring-ephemeral-ecosystem-that-hosts-butterflies/
Would you like to learn more about ephemeral wildflowers, or ready to see some of these wild beauties in person? Come join us on a hike sometime, and the guides of Asheville Hiking Tours will show you the array of flora and other miraculous organisms in our Southern Appalachian Mountains!
Natural Notes is Asheville Hiking Tours’ blog about nature, history and travel in the Appalachians. Asheville Hiking Tours offers day hikes, waterfall tours, and firefly tours, guided by naturalists, in the mountains around Asheville, NC. For more info visit www.AshevilleHikingTours.com.