Spring Ephemerals in Transylvania County
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As the cold weather finally subsides, they are amongst the first to greet us, ‘tis the season of spring ephemerals.
The Southern Appalachians are one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, and unsurprisingly, a wonderful place to look for these spring beauties. These flowers are lovers of the moist sloping ground characteristic of our mountainous region and looking for spring ephemerals can be a wonderful pastime for residents of Transylvania county that are looking for outdoor activities without traveling long distances.
Below is a list of 5 common spring ephemerals that you can look for or plant in your very own backyard.
But first, a bit of background about what makes these flowers so special.
Spring ephemerals fill a very specific niche in the ecosystem. They have evolved to bloom and set seed when the late winter sun warms the forest floor, but before the deciduous trees have leafed out and stolen the light. Especially high rates of photosynthesis allow them to complete their entire above-ground life cycle in just a few weeks. Hence the reason why these flowers are coined ephemerals- a word synonymous with transient or short-lived.
Short-lived, however, is not truly the case at all. After these flowers leaf out foliage, flower, set seed and then seemingly disappear, they are merely going dormant underground. For the rest of the year, their root systems will continue to grow and conserve energy until it is time for them to greet us again with their gorgeous flowers next spring.
Where to look:
*Please note* If leaving your home please check for closures and maintain proper social distancing measures while on the trail (or mark your calendars for next spring!)
If your backyard isn’t a suitable place for these flowers to grow, there are countless public areas in Transylvania County to look. The Art Loeb Trail near the Davidson River Campground is a great place to start, as it runs along the river and has plenty of sloping shaded surface. Other promising places to find these spring ephemerals are Cat Gap Loop Trail or the Twin Falls Trail, all in Pisgah National Forest. At this time, it is best to avoid weekends and peak hours when trails will be more crowded.
If you are thinking about planting spring ephemerals in your garden, the Woodland Garden at Silvermont is a wonderful example of suitable habitat for these flowers. The garden, maintained by the Transylvania Extension Master Gardeners is ADA accessible and a great place to find inspiration for shade-loving plants.
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)
Bloodroot gets its name from the dark sap found in the rhizome. Typically a solitary white flower of 8 to 12 petals growing on leafless stems. People from the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation utilize the root for dye. The root is also used medicinally by trained herbalists and practitioners, as it is powerful and known to be caustic.
Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum)
Trout lily obtained its name for their mottled leaves which resemble the speckled skin of brook trout. The flower is about 1 inch in diameter with curling pedals that nod downwards. The photo above shows E. americanum which has yellow flowers, where E. albidum touts white flowers. The leaves, flowers and bulbs are all edible. Trout lilies grow in colonies so it is common to find several close together. Large colonies of trout lilies may be over 100 years old!
Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum, Trillium Erectum)
Trillium comes in many different species, with quite a few only found in the Southern Appalachians. They can live up to 25 years.
Spring Beauty (Claytonia caroliniana)
Spring beauty typically has five- petalled pink and white flowers at only half an inch width. There will be one pair of leaves on a five-inch stem. The tubers which are found 2 to 3 inches under the soil are edible and have a sweet, starchy taste.
Liverwort (Hepatica nobilis)
Each stem covered in fine hairs produces a solitary flower which may be white, blue, lavender or even shades of pink. Once the petals fall, new leaves emerge at the base which are heart-shaped and have three lobes. The shiny appearance of the new leaves is what gives the plant its name, resembling an organ-like texture.
Tips for gardening spring ephemerals
Since several of these species are threatened, it’s important to obtain them from a nursery rather than from the wild. Harvesting these wildflowers from their natural environment accelerates population decline and damages woodland habitat.
That being said, it is possible to grow spring ephemerals in your own garden. Thanks to their life cycle strategies, these flowers make it possible to garden even if your property is heavily forested.
It is important to note, unlike their shade tolerating seasonal successors these species need to be planted where they will receive dappled sunlight before trees leaf out and the rest of the understory grows in. This makes them excellent additions as ground cover between perennials that will not emerge until later in the season.
These plants will be most successful in gardens that replicate their natural woodland habitat. This entails slightly acidic and well-draining soil, preferably on a slope covered by plenty of leaf litter. Many prefer damp soil, but can be naturalized in drier areas under trees if watered well through the rest of the spring.
Something to keep in mind is that some of these plants may take very long to flower. As an extreme example, the trout lily may take up to 8 years to start flowering! Yet another reason to appreciate their presence in the wild and leave them as they are.
As always if you have any questions about woodland or any other type of gardening please reach out to the N.C. Cooperative Extension of Transylvania County!
Copy by Samantha Trueman
Photos by Laura Anderson and Samantha Trueman