Native Landscape at the National Museum of the American Indian
Wetland habitat at the National Museum of the American Indian

Spring is a magical time of year when the forest floor comes to life with colorful and complex wildflowers. Join Amy Mawby for an ecological exploration of the season with a focus on its harbingers, our native spring ephemerals. Go on a photographic journey of our most fleeting flowers while discovering cultural information and fun facts.


Q: Amy mentioned that these plants love the rich humus-y soil of the eastern woodland. Are there species that are more tolerant of poor, disturbed, or clay soils?
A: Spring ephemerals have underground storage organs (bulbs, corms, rhizomes, etc) and they will rot in wet or soggy soils including heavy clay. That’s why they do best in soils with good drainage. You could try bluebells in the clay soil since they tolerate a bit more wet than some. I’m sure there are other spring blooming native plants that fit that growing scenario, just maybe not spring ephemerals.
Q: Is bloodroot likely to survive in a sunny lawn, through a summer of mowing?
A: Anything that I’ve read has put bloodroot in the part-shade to shade category. I did a quick online search and a couple things popped up about growing in full sun. I feel like spring in full sun is one thing but summer in full sun is a whole other ballgame. Bloodroot may not tolerate the soil drying out and heat, even if it is underground at that point. Worth a shot but not where I think of bloodroot growing!
Q: Which of the Ephemerals do you think will be out for the City Nature Challenge? April 30 to May 3
A: I guess it kind of depends on which city you’re in! I would say that some of the ephemerals could still be out but in seed at that point. You won’t be identifying them by their flowers but by their leaves and seeds/fruits.
Q: What’s the typical timing for Bluebells to flower from seed?
A: A great question that I don’t think I have an answer to! Most online resources say that bluebells can be started from seed but they grow quite slowly. Virginia bluebell seeds need a period of cold, or stratification, prior to germination. Perhaps Bill Cullina’s Wildflowers: A Guide to Growing and Propagating Native Flowers of North America would provide more information for you or a local native plant nursery.
Q: Wasn’t the color inside bloodroot used for dyes?
A: Yes, Native Americans used the sap/juices from the rhizome for dyes and war paints. I believe that the sap is caustic to skin though so do thorough research prior to using this yourself.Q: Where do Jack-in-the-Pulpits fit in?  Are they native?  Would they do well in woodland shade in this area?
A: Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is another great native plant that loves woodland shade (or part-shade) and moist to wet soil.Q: If you leave leaves until spring and then clean up how do you protect the emerging ephemerals.  I leave them until February/March.
A: Spring ephemerals are used to living in and amongst leaves and love it! You could consider finely shredding your leaves in the fall (with a leaf shredder or lawnmower) and using those on your garden beds to conserve moisture, protect plants and allow insects to overwinter/live below. Over time, shredded leaves become leaf mold which is a great mulch and also does great things for your soil. Larger leaves can create mats leading to plant emergence issues.Q: Can you pot a spring ephemeral?
A: I’m going to interpret this as can you grow spring ephemerals in pots or containers. An interesting thought! I have read that Virginia bluebells can be grown in containers as long as it stays moderately moist (but drains) and is located in part-shade. I guess if you tried growing them in containers, you’d need to try to mimic the rest of their woodland lifecycle so I wouldn’t plant other plants in the same container with them.Q: Do you have any advice for planting ephemeral?  Time of year? Where to procure them?
A: You can plant spring ephemerals in spring. I would target native plant nurseries close to you or organizations like botanical gardens, nature centers or watershed groups that may put on plant sales. I also found information below that says early fall is the best time to plant them (especially bare root). The trouble with that advice is that many native plant nurseries probably will not be selling spring ephemerals in fall because the plants die back and then they would be selling people pots with no visible plant growing. Definitely a hard sell! My advice would be buy in early spring from a local native plant source and get them in the ground.
According to Prairie Nursery in WI, early fall is the best time to plant spring ephemerals: “Spring-blooming perennials, especially in the bare root form, are best planted early in the fall. Planting in the fall while the soil is still warm will give the roots enough time to establish properly. This allows the plants to emerge from established roots with a stronger start the following spring…Many of our spring ephemerals are shipped as “bare root” stock.”Q: Do deer eat Trilliums?
A: Yes, deer will eat trilliums. They will browse on leaves and eat flowers and fruits.