Spring Ephemeral Magic

The spring ephemerals bring a special magic to the woodland in early spring.  They are woodland dwellers and  emerge from the cold winter soils as the days start to get longer.  Once the winter sun gets stronger, they start growing and carpet the soils with a light tracery of green.  Just a little bit of warmth brings out the flowers in a variety of different sizes, shapes and colors.

These little plants put a lot of energy into a very short window of time.  They are in a race against time and will   emerge, flower and set seed all before the trees above them leaf out.  They retreat into the soil once the sun no   longer reaches them and will not be seen again until the next season.

 Looking at a few treasures

Blood root closerThe   Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis,  is one of the first ephemerals to appear inbloodroot open the woodlands.   The example pictured is a small colony found growing on   a rocky ledge underneath oaks and hickories.    They can also grow in moister areas.    The uniquely shaped leaf along with the brilliant white flower makes quite a show for a small plant.The common name, Bloodroot, is descriptive of the roots which emit a red sap when they are cut.  The sap has been used medicinally, although, current thinking is that it is not effective and can be toxic.   The flowers are very variable and showy double   flowered forms are cultivated in gardens.
dicentra close 

Dutchman’s Breeches, Dicentra cucullaria,  starts flowering just a short while after the Bloodroot. It is also found growing on the rocky ledge in a rich organic layer from the oakDicentra cucallariaand hickory leaves. Dutchmen’s   Breeches are very prolific spreaders.    When conditions are to their liking they can  form a wonderful blue green carpet   sprinkled with unusual white flowers.    It a native form of the cultivated Bleeding Heart.The Dogtooth Violet , Erythronium americanum, grows in large colonies consisting of hundreds of bulbs.  These were found growing in a flood plain area along with the native Virginia Bluebell.  Dogtooth VioletThey flower at the same time as the Dutchman’s Breeches and just before the Bluebells come into peak flower.The foliage is also interesting and has curious dark speckles.  These are also known as Trout Lilies since their leaves resemble the skin of a trout in appearance.While the plants appear in large colonies, there are never a lot of flowers blooming at one time and it is always a special surprise to find the nodding yellow flowers.   Only the most mature bulbs produce flowers and they open sporadically.Virginia Bluebell emerging

The Virginia Bluebells, Mertensia virginica, are perhaps one of the best known spring ephemerals in our Northern Virginia gardens.These exuberant ephemerals grow in lush clumps and remain ornamentally interesting for much longer than many of the ephemerals.Before the flowers open, their colorful flower buds look attractive nestled within the lush foliage.

virginia bluebell detailWhere growing conditions are right, they grow in vast colonies in moist bottom land soils near streams.

If the spring weather stays cool, the flowering show can last for a month or more.  It is quite an uplifting sight to see huge drifts of these bluebells in flower.  Native white barked American Sycamore and the lemon yellow flowers of Spice Bush appear alongside these beauties and add to the scene.

While these plants thrive in rich flood plain soils, they also are adaptable to ordinary garden conditions.  They are easily grown and reliable garden performers.  Since they disappear into the ground by the end of May, one just needs to remember where they are planted so they aren’t accidentally dug up later in the season !

Where to see them

The Bull Run stream bed area is home to the largest stand of the Virginia Bluebell on the East Coast.  There are a number of places along the stream where the bluebells grow in vast stretches.  The Bull Run Regional Park is a great place to view them in person.  The Stone Bridge Loop Trail in the Manassas Battlefield National Park is another great place to go to see the Bluebells and other fun sights of spring.

virginia bluebells

 By Cecilia Palmer