Spring in Wisconsin is a beautiful rebirth. What I love about it is the gradual unfolding in stages. Even when there’s still snow on the ground, tiny snowdrop flowers pop through the snow, and the skunk cabbage burns its way through the slush. Grass gets just a little hint of chlorophyll if you squint just right. It’s cold out, but you still brave a run to the mailbox in a t-shirt. It’s not that cold. Of course, that’s what Midwesterns say if it’s anything above zero.
This time of year brings out my favorite flowers: the Spring Ephemerals. This guild of plants is only active during the brief period between snowmelt and leaf-out, and they must make hay while the sun shines quite literally. Most of them 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 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 plants bloom for just a few days, for the most part. They can’t afford to waste energy on luscious long-lasting blooms, so the flowers are small and fragile. Maybe their transience is why I love them.
I have a small patch of Pasque Flowers growing in my backyard. These beauties usually bloom right around Easter, hence their name. They’re little white gems covered in little hairs, and they close up at night to protect themselves from the cold. The tallest I’ve ever seen them is about four inches.
This year they bloomed on Orthodox Easter (last Sunday as I write this). My Greek friends will smile and give me an “I told you so,” but flowers aren’t checking the calendar. They bloom when they bloom. I took a look out the window and instead of the gray-green clump of leaves and a few light colored lumps, I saw little white flowers. I put on my mud shoes at the back door and ran out to see them.
And there they were, just opening as the sun hit them. They’re complex flowers, with intricate anatomy that is only observable by close examination.
Five days later, they’re already withering, but the trout lilies are starting to bloom. That’s the overlap with ephemerals - first the Hepatica, then the Pasque Flowers, then the Dutchman’s Breeches and Bloodroot. The Bloodroot blossoms last a few days at the most, then you’re left with the beautiful horseshoe-shaped leaves.
It doesn’t take a genius to see the world’s pretty topsy-turvy right now. As much as the talking heads on the news yammer on about demographics and modeling predictions, the simple fact is that we are sailing in uncharted waters.
That’s okay. No one ever discovered a new land sailing on the standard routes. Some people are terrified, but the explorers are looking at the horizon thinking “I wonder what’s out there.”
The ephemerals don’t care about what’s happening in six weeks, let alone six months. They’re the botanical equivalent of being In The Moment. What I’m finding is that many people are acting more like ephemerals, taking pleasure in the right now.
Not that ephemerals don’t care about the future; they are working hard below the surface to prepare for next year. I’m working hard below the surface (invisible to you, dear reader), but I’m still enjoying the moments of beauty that you provide. Phone calls of encouragement, thoughtful gestures, and any and all purchases over the phone and online, are all sustaining us spiritually as well as economically. I am grateful for every contact.
Even with the chaos, still, Spring unfolds. One by one, signs indicate that no matter what happens in April, we’re gonna be okay in May. Both flowers and moments are ephemeral, and I’m cherishing both.