Vermont’s Extraordinary Spring Ephemerals
Discovering the adaptations of our resilient early wildflowers
At first glance, a Vermont forest can appear dormant in early spring, that time between the snow melting and the deciduous trees leafing out. But walk into the woods with a close eye on the forest floor, and soon, you might find a lively patch of spring ephemerals – flowers like trillium, trout lily, bloodroot, hepatica, and early blue cohosh. As the name “ephemerals” hints, these early spring wildflowers appear but for a brief window, taking advantage of sun for photosynthesis before trees’ leaves emerge.
In late April, educator and UVM Field Naturalist Hayley Kolding led a spring ephemerals walk at Shelburne Farms. Here, Hayley shares a few things to consider as you discover these fleeting natural wonders, at the farm or in your own backyard.
Notice their habitat. Often, spring ephemerals are found in rocky woods with rich soil in what can seem like unlikely spots: on slopes, where water and melting snow move quickly. So how do these plants grow in such extremes? Hayley says this is thanks to a few different factors. When water moves down slopes, it carries eroded rock from above. Here in Vermont, those rocks can be rich in calcium and other minerals, supplying the plants with nutrients.
There’s another idea, called the vernal dam hypothesis, “that soil nutrients are heavily leached into waterways during the spring melt and subsequent rains. When spring ephemerals are present, they act as nutrient sinks, taking up much of the nutrients that would otherwise be lost,” writes ecologist Matt Candeias. As ephemerals complete their growing cycle, they send those nutrients back into the soil, explains Hayley, when other plants are ready to take it up.
“We know how important preserving large, intact, connected blocks of forest is for wildlife to travel, feed, and reproduce,” says Hayley. “But what people might not know is that forest habitats are important for flowers, too.”
Each flower has a special adaptive strategy. Thriving in early spring takes a unique approach. “Many herbaceous plants have deeper root systems and begin growing after the thaw has traveled deeper into the soil, but many spring ephemerals have the adaptation of small size and shallow root systems, allowing them to make use of the top layer of soil when it thaws, before the other larger plants arrive to compete,” says Hayley.
Bloodroot is one of the earliest flowers to bloom, but if it’s too cold, pollinators may not be in the air. So, bloodroot can fertilize itself (called autogamy). Something else fantastic about this plant, adds Hayley, is that although bloodroot’s delicate white flowers fade quickly, the uniquely shaped leaf will remain and can be seen long into spring. “Bloodroot also wraps its leaves around its stem and bud to shroud them from frost.”
Another is trout lily, whose beautiful red speckled leaves resemble trout underwater. The plant produces a stolon, a modified stem “that arches up like a croquet wicket,” describes Hayley, “with a little white bulb at the end called a ‘dropper.’” That dropper, with assistance from gravity, pulls the stolon back into the soil to re-root. By early June, the stolon will be the only trace of lily left.
The flower hepatica has an adaptation that will sound familiar: it’s covered in fuzz. “As strange and amazing as it sounds, hairs on stems, leaves, and buds give many early spring wildflowers an insulating advantage in colder weather, just like the hairs on our own body,” says Hayley.
Early blooms, awakening pollinators. Of course, flowers aren’t the only ones coming alive in early spring. “All of these little spring beauties are so connected to insects as well,” says Hayley. Ants can emerge earlier than bees, and trout lily is one flower that takes advantage. Myrmecochory is the act of ants dispersing seeds. “Ants take a seed back to their colony and, without eating the seed itself, eat the fleshy, oily body around the seed, which is completely alluring and delicious to ants.” The seed is then abandoned, effectively planted in a new habitat.
And then there are the other early pollinators: bees. “We have over 300 species of bee in Vermont,” says Hayley (several of which we spotted on our walk on the farm). “Some burrow in sand, others live in hollow twigs and brush. Keeping our yards messy into the spring is a really beautiful way to preserve the native pollinators that in turn pollinate these flowers we love so much.” If you have a backyard garden, says Hayley, leave shrubs, dead wood, bundles of stems and twigs, as well as bands of exposed sand or soil, as microhabitats for these early fliers.
“Even to see just one early pollinator out in action on the flowers feels good, but to see quite a few, it makes me feel hopeful that people will continue to recognize these wild pollinators as equally if not more important than the livestock honeybee. We should all be thinking about how can we make the landscape suitable for these unsung heroes?”
For even more information about ID-ing Vermont wildflowers in spring, check out this guide from the Vermont Land Trust. We hope you’ll explore your own backyard or neighborhood natural area in search of these and other spring ephemerals.