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Spring Ephemerals, or A Walk in the Woods

By Kathleen M. Tenpas (KathleenApril 4, 2012

Ephermera, from the Greek for “things lasting only a day” as in the May Fly of the order Ephemeroptera. In the plant kingdom, ephemerals are a bit longer lived, but once their flowers have set seed, they too may disappear in a day. The fleeting days of late April and May bring them forth on the hills and in the wooded valleys, but seek them early, for when June warms up to summer, all trace will be but a memory

Gardening picture

(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on May 4, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.) 

Years ago, when our daughters were little, we helped friends with maple sugaring. It began in February, usually in a cold slushy downpour, and often ended in early April on a warm, sunny day full of newly awakened bugs. The couple we worked for are honest, straight forward folks, not those you would think of as terribly romantic. But every spring, as the weather warmed and the sugaring season wore down, the boss would bring his wife the first spring beauties.

Early this April, back in our woods, there were still patches of snow and the bare ground was an almost solid carpet of last year’s old leaves, now in shades of tan and grey and a dark russet. The spring pools were full of melt water and April rain. The only greens were last year’s fern fronds and the partidge berry vines. But if you tread carefully and looked closely you’d find the tiny leaves and buds of

Image spring beauties pushing through the ash leaves.

Spring ephemerals, those sweet blooms that pop up overnight when the weather warms a bit and seemingly disappear as quickly, are one of the joys of spring in my woods.

The spring beauties Image

and hepaticas Image come first,

followed closely by trilliums Image

and blue cohosh, Image

Indian cucumber root, ImageImage

jack-in-pulpits Image

and yellow mandarin Image,

trout lilies, Image

bloodroot Image

and cowslips Image .


If I begin in mid April and walk back once or twice a week through May, I will see all of these come and go as quickly as an April shower, as lovely as a day in May. 


The first year that I walked out every day between snow melt and late May was the year my youngest daughter went to school.  I had mornings to myself, after chores, and took my camera, a notebook and a pencil and a copy of the Audobon Society's Field Guide to North American Wildflowers Eastern.  Mitzi, our Border Collie cross, would walk back with me on school days, and the girls would often tag along on Saturdays.  We'd go rain or shine, but if it thundered, Mitzi would turn me toward the house, she had a great fear of thunder storms.


The first flowers that I identified were the hepaticas, some that were periwinkle blue and some pink.  Then there were the trilliums and the big violets, both the downy yellow violets and Canada violets, the tiny sweet white violets and the round leaved yellows.  There were Dutchman's britches circling old rotted stumps and Canada mayflowers and miniature ginseng on the dryer western side of the woods where the Indian cucumber root grew. 


It has been several years since I've had time to spend an entire spring watching them come and go, but this year, I have a bit more time, and there will be more walks in the woods and some new photographs to go with those from the past.



The botanical names of the flowers shown in photographs are as follows:


Claytonia virginica Spring Beauties

Hepatica Hepatica

Trillium erectum Trillium

Caulophyllum thalictroides Blue Cohosh

Medeola virginiana Indian Cucumber Root

Arisaema triphyllum Jack-In-Pulpit

Disporum lanuginosum Yellow Mandarin

Erythronium americanum Trout Lilies

Sanguinaria canadensis Bloodroot

Caltha palustris Cowslip


All photos are the property of the author.

These two threads in the Native Plants and Wild Plants forum have additional pictures of many more early spring flowers:







  About Kathleen M. Tenpas  
Kathleen M. TenpasWe have a grazing dairy of 55 cows in the rolling hills of western New York State where we raised two daughters who have now blessed us with four grandchildren. I have messy, jungly beds of old roses, (some real antiques left by former owners), perennials, wildflowers and lots and lots of not so ornamental grasses! I have a Masters degree in Creative Writing: Poetry from Antioch University. I am a photographer and fabric artist and I bake a mean loaf of bread.

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