Spring Ephemerals

Fleeting flowers at Awbury

Trillium. Credit for all photos: Karen Flick

Each season is described by the changes in nature. Spring holds the bright green leaves bursting from trees and a profusion of bird chirps. One of the most cherished spring features is ephemeral flowers.

Spring flowers are herbaceous plants – plants without woody stems – and can be understood by their life cycles. There are perennial flowering plants, which regrow each year off the same roots. Black-eyed Susans are an example.

Annual flowering plants, such as sunflowers, live their entire life cycle in one year. They sprout from seeds in the spring and grow up to produce flowers and seeds before the plant, including roots, dies. These may return in the garden, but it is from seeds rather than the root systems like perennials.

Virginia Bluebells

Finally, there are the spring ephemerals bursting all around. These flowering plants are perennial but only spend a very brief time above the soil. This includes the signature spring bulbs: daffodils and tulips.

Large urban natural areas like Awbury Arboretum and the Wissahickon provide habitats where these plants thrive. Spring ephemerals love being under deciduous trees – trees that lose leaves in the fall. This provides the plant’s root system with shade in the hot summer and access to sun in the winter to warm the soils before emerging in the cool spring. These areas also provide loose soils rich in leaf debris for the roots to live all year.

A Spring Beauty

Some spring ephemerals found in this area include trout lilies, Virginia bluebells, mayapples, and spring beauties. How can you be a steward for these plants?

  • Stay on paths to prevent compacting soil. Spring bloomers may not always be noticeable, but they are active under the soil and vulnerable to compaction caused by a footstep.
  • Refrain from picking flowers. These flowers produce seeds for even more plants next year.
  • Join Awbury for the annual BioBlitz, an international community-nature event, on April 25th. Community members can learn to become Citizen Scientists.
  • Volunteer: Awbury Arboretum does Wednesday morning volunteer gardening through November; volunteers can get in the dirt with flowering plants.
About Karen Flick 10 Articles
Karen is Awbury's Landscape Manager. She is a former intern at the arboretum and a Temple University graduate with degrees in psychology and horticulture.

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