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Early Spring Ephemerals

Posted by Rutabaga Staff on 3/31/2013 to Nature & Photography

Picture April and early May in Wisconsin… the weather flips daily from winter to spring, spring to winter, and back and forth again. People never know what to wear! For a certain group of plants, this “in between” period is the most important part of their life cycle — they emerge from the ground, flower, produce seed, and return to suspended animation where they will remain for the rest of the year.

I’m talking about the spring ephemerals. This guild of plants is only active during the brief period between snowmelt and leaf-out. Why are the activities of these species limited to that short segment of time, you ask? It has to do with the old adage, “Make hay while the sun shines,” literally. Most of these plants grow in deeply shaded forests, so the only time there is enough sunshine reaching the ground is during these few weeks.

Since these plants are perennials, they get a jump-start on the other early bloomers by sprouting from underground corms or bulbs. They grow close to the ground because there is no competition at their growth level, and this low profile also reduces damage from the cold winds. Because the weather is still too cold for flying insects, ants and small ground beetles pollinate the plants and disseminate their seeds. Once the next generation is secured in this way, the plants race against the coming shade to produce enough starch to supply fuel for another eleven months of dormancy. Finally, with the “cellar” full and the trees leafing out, the plants retreat into the ground to rest until the next spring.

These upcoming April weeks are the optimal time to get out, wander the woods, locate a carpet of color, lie on the ground, and experience these fleeting but memorable blossoms up close and personal.

Take a guidebook with you, and see what you can find. Here are some to look for:

Common Members of the Spring Ephemeral Guild:

  • Round Leaf Hepatica — Hepatica americana
  • Sharp Leaf Hepatica — H. acutiloba
  • Cut-Leaved Toothwort — Dentaria laciniata
  • Spring Beauty — Claytonia virginians
  • Dutchman’s Breeches — Dicentra cucullaria
  • Squirrel Corn — D. canadensis
  • White Trout Lily — Erthyronium albidum
  • Yellow Trout Lily — E. americanum
  • Wood anemone — Anemone quinquefolia
  • Bloodroot — Sanquinaria canadensis

Some other early flowering plants you might see while out and about are:


  • Violets (many species) — Viola spp.
  • Virginia Waterleaf — Hydrophyllum virginianum.

Swamp and Stream Banks

  • Skunk Cabbage — Symplocarpus foetidus.
  • Marsh Marigold — Caltha palustris.


  • Pasque Flower — Anenome patens.

Trees and Shrubs

  • Elms — Ulmus spp.
  • Juneberries — Amelanchier spp.
  • Red Maples — Acer rubrum.

Suggested Guide Books:

  • Fassett, Norman C. 1978. Spring Flora of Wisconsin. Univ. Wisc. Press, Madison.
  • Newcomb, Lawrence. 1977. Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide. Litte, Brown and Co., New York

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