Native Plants

Spring ephemerals

By Vickie Bell

Spring ephemeral season is here in Virginia. It’s the first wildflower showing of the season after a long, gray winter. Most ephemerals are diminutive which could be a sign of delicacy but these plants are anything but delicate. In fact, they make most other plants look like total softies.

Spring ephemerals have to complete most of their life cycle in the early spring before the trees and understory shrubs leaf out and steal most of the available light. This is an incredibly tough time to be a plant. Soil temperatures are low which makes nutrient and water uptake difficult; all but the most robust pollinators are still sound asleep; and there is the danger of a hard frost or freak snow storm. These factors have led to some incredible adaptations in ephemerals.

Most spring ephemerals have two growth phases; epigeous (above ground) and hypogeous (below ground). The hypogeous phase of growth takes place throughout fall and winter. This is when plants put out more roots and develop next season’s buds. This process uses nutrients that were stored the previous spring. Once spring arrives and soils begin to warm, the plants enter the epigeous phase of growth where leaves and flowers sprout and reproduction occurs.

Photosynthetic proteins activate very early so that when the leaf is fully expanded, the plant is a powerhouse of carbohydrate production. Photosynthesizing in cool temperatures comes at a cost. Low soil temperatures make uptake of water and nutrients difficult and many species of spring ephemeral have very little root surface area in the form of root hairs. These species have extensive mycorrhizal associations which helps the plant overcome this issue.

Despite all of these amazing adaptations, life is still no cake walk and growth is painstakingly slow. Many species, like trout lilies (Erythronium spp.) (right), can take 8 years to flower! In some areas where white tailed deer populations have exploded, their foraging threatens the long-term survival of many different plant species. Especially hard hit are spring ephemerals as they are the first plants to emerge after a long winter of near starvation.

Spring is here and things are getting underway. Get out there and enjoy the heck out of the spring ephemerals! In a few short weeks they will be back underground, awaiting the next cold, damp spring.