Garden Detective: Spring ephemerals

A spring beauty, Claytonia virginica, also know as

A spring beauty, Claytonia virginica, also know as fairy spud, begins to show star-like pink flowers in early spring. The tiny ephemeral often sprawls on the forest floor, sending up as many as 15 blossoms from each underground stem. (April 18, 2006) (Credit: AP)

Jessica Damiano

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If you planted bulbs last fall, it's almost time for their show. Late spring perennials will follow, supplemented by annuals for season-long color in the garden. But there's another category of plants you can use to bridge the gap between winter and summer: ephemerals.

According to Webster's Dictionary, "ephemeral" means "lasting a very short time," and it's true: These plants are fleeting. But the beauty of these mysterious beauties is that, unlike bulb plants such as daffodils and perennials such as hellebores, they don't leave behind any unsightly foliage. They poke out of the ground, grow quickly, bloom and go dormant over the course of just six to eight weeks, after which they disappear entirely, retreating under the soil so you can use that precious real estate for annuals or strategically planted later-season perennials such as hostas or ferns.

Ephemerals come to life just after the last of winter's snow melts, taking full advantage of the ground moisture coupled with seasonal rains and the temporary sunlight that warms the soil before trees leaf out. Take a walk through the woods later this month, and you'll likely behold the sight of Dutchman's breeches, great white trillium and Virginia bluebells covering the forest floor.

PHOTOS: Spring ephemerals

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In the wild, ephemerals have a purpose -- as food for starving insects just coming out of dormancy at a time when other food sources are scarce, and their flowers provide nectar and pollen for bees. In the garden, these spring wildflowers also serve a purpose, providing bloom-starved humans with uplifting, colorful flowers after months of bleakness.

Their needs are few: Plant corms 2-3 inches deep in well-draining acidic soil in a spot that will have access to early spring sunlight (exceptions are noted below). Apply mulch, and water the area in autumn to aid root growth. Autumn also is division time, should the plants grow too large for your liking (mark their spots with Popsicle sticks in spring, so you'll be able to find them in fall). Fertilizing just as buds begin to form is optional but will result in larger flowers.

Here are some reliable ephemerals that will provide early spring joy that is anything but fleeting.

 

Calypso orchid,

fairy slipper

(Calypso bulbosa)A single, dainty, exotic, purple-magenta-yellow-white blossom atop a slender stem with a single basal leaf. Thrives best in shade or part shade and can handle alkaline soil. Grows 2-8 inches tall.

 

Marsh marigold

(Caltha palustris)Shiny yellow buttercup flowers on mounded succulent plants. Thrives best in shade or part shade and prefers very moist soil. Early spring greens are edible but must be cooked (pour boiling water over leaves two or three times until tender; don't boil). Grows 1-2 feet tall.

 

Spring beauty

(Claytonia virginica)

Loose clusters of pink or pink-striped white flowers on slender stems. Thrives in rich, moist soil. Benefits native bees. Grows 4-12 inches tall.

 

Squirrel corn

(Dicentra canadensis)

Grayish-blue fernlike leaves and fragrant pink- or lavender-tinged flowers. Thrives in partly shady conditions. Note to parents and pet owners: All plant parts are toxic, but only if consumed in large quantities; causes minor skin irritation when touched. Grows 6-10 inches tall.

 

Dutchman's breeches

(Dicentra cucullaria)

Deep-cut, feathery foliage forms dense masses atop which bare, slender stems sport drooping, fragrant white flowers. Note to parents and pet owners: All plant parts are toxic, but only if consumed in large quantities; causes minor skin irritation when touched. Beneficial to bumblebees. Grows 10 inches tall.

 

Fringed bleeding hearts

(Dicentra eximia)

Light-green, fernlike foliage and clusters of drooping, heart-shaped pink flowers on mounding plants. Thrives in moist, rocky soil and prefers part-shade to shade. Attracts birds. Grows 1-2 feet tall.

 

Winter aconite

(Eranthis hyemalis)

Ground-hugging plant with small, shiny yellow upward-facing buttercup flowers; great in the lawn under shade trees, in front of shrubbery and in rock gardens. Thrives in full sun to part shade. Grows 3-8 inches tall.

 

Harbinger of spring

(Erigenia bulbosa)

Purple stems support white flowers with teardrop-shaped petals and dark-red centers. A relative of the carrot and one of the earliest spring bloomers, appearing from February to April. Grows 3-10 inches tall.

 

Trout lily

(Erythronium

americanum)

Blotchy leaves and red-tinged, nodding yellow flowers with curled-back petals. Will perform best in full sun but can handle part shade. Does not transplant well, so should be left in place once planted. Grows 8 inches tall.

 

Azure bluet

(Houstonia caerulea)

Rosette-patterned leaves and small, pale-blue flowers with yellow centers. Sow seeds just below the soil surface. Grow in rock gardens or in the lawn, but don't mow until plants have set seed for the following year. Grows 8 inches tall.

 

Twinleaf

(Jeffersonia diphylla)

Each leaf is divided into two lung-shaped leaflets, with white, star-shaped flowers rising above on leafless flower stalks. Petals are delicate and can be blown off by wind. Grows 1-3 feet tall.

 

Virginia bluebells

(Mertensia virginica)

Pink, but opens to reveal blue flowers on arching, branched stems. Prefers part shade or shade and moist, rocky soil. Grows 1-3 feet tall.

 

Bloodroot

(Sanguinaria canadensis)

One large, palmate leaf and one orange-centered white flower per plant, each on its own stem. Spreads quickly to form a ground cover. Rhizome (root) can be fatal if ingested. Grows 12-14 inches tall.

 

Rue anemone

(Thalictrum

thalictroides)

Pink or white flowers on maroon stems with whorled leaves. Prefers partly shady conditions. Note to parents and pet owners: All plant parts are toxic, but only if eaten in large quantities; contact with sap will cause irritation. Grows 9 inches tall.

 

Foamflower

(Tiarella cordifolia)

Mounding plant with tall spikes of star-shaped, white flowers. Thrives in shady conditions in moist soil. Grows 6-12 inches tall.

 

Great white trillium

(Trillium grandiflorum)

A triplet of oval leaves surrounds a solitary large white flower that turns pink as it matures. Berries and roots have a low toxicity, but only if eaten. Thrives in sun to shade. Grows 1-3 feet tall.

 

Bleeding heart

(Lamprocapnos

spectabilis)

Small, nodding, heart-shaped flowers with white inner petals that hang in a row from arching stems. Thrives in part sun to dense shade; rabbit-resistant. Grows 2-3 feet tall.