Plan a sweetheart of a garden now

Believe it or not - the ground will begin to thaw soon, and the harbingers of spring will begin to make their presence known. One group of plants that is known for delicate blossoming in early spring, and is not well known outside of hard core gardeners is called spring ephemerals. Ephemeral means short-lived or lasting for a brief time. Spring ephemeral de- scribes perennial flowers that pop up early each spring, quickly bloom, then retreat into dormancy as the heat of summer approaches.

These plants grow best in woodland settings, underneath deciduous trees. In early spring, these small herbaceous plants can take advantage of the high levels of sunlight reaching through bare branches prior to the large woodland trees forming their shady canopy. So if your property is heavily wooded, and you’ve been looking for plants that will grow inshade, give some of these a try.


Planting Tips: As with all plants,please don’t remove them from wild woodlands. Despite their short-lived presence, these species play a critical role in the forest ecosystem. Spring ephemerals stabilize soils, con- tribute important nutrients, and help sus- tain native bee populations. Purchase plants from reputable sources that state “nursery propagated” and not merely “nursery grown.”Choose a woodland-like site. They need rich soil, spring moisture and summer shade. Prepare the bed in advance with 3-4” of compost, lightly worked into the soil. Although ephemerals love the dampness of spring, they don’t like to sit in wet soil while dormant. Be sure the soil is well draining with a fairly neutral to slightly acidic soil pH. They look best in mass plantings, but they can be started with a handful of plants. Mulch annually with compost or shredded leaves that will break down and feed the roots. Unlike so many other perennials that die back in fall, these go summer dormant. Plant perennials around them that will fill in after them.


For example, hostas and ferns unfurl as the ephemerals are fading.The top growth of spring ephemerals may disappear completely, but the roots are still fine and they appreciate the cooling cover of later plants that fill in the spaces they leave empty.Here are some of my favorite spring ephemerals:• Virginia bluebells have soft magentaflower buds that open as tubular blossoms of an enchanting sky blue.• Dutchman’s breeches flowers resemble pantaloons blowing in the breeze. • Trilliums are available in several different varieties, but the showiest, grandiflorum, have three-petaled white blossoms rising above the leaf litter on single stems, highlighted by three green leaf-like bracts.• Tiarella, also known as foam flowers, produce tiny, white flowers with very long stamens on 12” spikes that lend a“foamy” appearance to the plants.• Iris cristata grows well on well-drained slopes. This dwarf crested iris is low growing, typically 3-6” tall. It features pale blue, lilac or lavender iris flowers with gold crests on the falls. A well developed bed can produce a spectacular drift of color.• Bloodroot rises from the center of its curled leaf, opening in full sun, and closing at night. The red sap from the underground stem was used by Indians as a dye for baskets, clothing, and war paint, as well as for insect repellent. The generic name, from the Latin sanguinarius, means bleeding. The natural habitat for most spring ephemerals is woodland, particularly damp areas like stream banks.They come out about the time insects return and pro-vide a food source for them, when little else is available. It’s a symbiotic relationship,since these insects pollinate the flowers and help spread the seeds. If you don’t have the right conditions to grow these beauties, try taking your sweetheart for a walk in the woods, where you can enjoy them in their natural environment!


by Kathleen Harvey,Owner, Plant Artistry, LLC

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Last modified on 09/23/2018

Published in Stewardship
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