Spring Ephemerals: A Guide to Early Season Wildflowers

Spring ephemerals are some of the first wildflowers to bloom in early spring. Their appearance signals the end of winter and start of the growing season. In Eastern Canada, from April to June, you can spot a range of ephemerals, including Dutchman’s breeches, trout lilies, bloodroot, trillium, and spring beauties. Once they arrive, they’re only here for a few short weeks, so you have to keep an eye out for them.

Below, you’ll find more information about these fascinating plants, their role in the ecosystem, and tips for locating them.

What Are Spring Ephemerals?

Spring ephemerals, as their name suggests, are short-lived plants that complete their lifecycle in just a few weeks. This allows them to survive the shady conditions of deciduous forests. By making an early appearance, they take full advantage of available sunlight before the trees and understory leaf out. It’s just enough time to grow, bloom, and produce seeds. Once the forest canopy fills out, the ephemerals wither and die back.

Despite their short lifespan aboveground, many spring ephemerals have complex lives that span multiple years, with different growth stages occurring underground and aboveground. Many have evolved specialized storage organs such as bulbs, bulbils, corms, and rhizomes that allow them to store nutrients and energy during the growing season to survive their dormant period.

Here are five ephemerals to look for this spring:

Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)

Found in: Hardwood and mixed wood forests in MB, ON, NB, NS, PEI

Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) gets its name from the distinctive shape of its delicate, white flowers, which resemble the trousers worn by Dutchmen in the 17th and 18th centuries. The plant’s distinct leaves are basal, growing from the base of the plant, and have a fern-like appearance.

Bees, specifically bumble bees like Bombus bimaculatus and Bombus affinis, along with honey bees, pollinate Dutchman’s Breeches.1 Once pollinated, the flower becomes a fruit that contain seeds with a fleshy appendage called an elaiosome, which is rich in lipids, proteins, and other nutrients.

Elaiosomes are a valuable source of nutrition and attract ants who carry the seeds back to their nests. The ants eat the elaiosomes, but do not consume the seeds. As a result, the seeds are dispersed from the parent plant and can germinate in new locations. This germination strategy, known as myrmecochory, is common among all the other ephemerals on this list.

Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum)

Found in: Deciduous and mixed wood forests in ON, NB, PEI, NS

The first time I saw trout lilies (Erythronium americanum) I was walking through the Ottawa Greenbelt. The ground was blanketed by unfamiliar waxy leaves, mottled with green and brownish-purple patches. I had no idea what they were. A few days later, armed with a field guide, I went back to find that many of the plants had bloomed yellow bell-shaped flowers. It was quite the sight!

You’ll often find trout lilies growing in large colonies, forming a dense carpet on the forest floor. Young plants have one leaf and older plants have two. The leaves emerge before the flowers, and they are an important source of food for white-tailed deer.

Trout lily gets its common name from its speckled leaves which are reminiscent of the brown trout or brook trout. Also referred to as dogtooth violet, the plant derives this name from its bulb, which resembles the shape of a canine’s tooth.

On average, it takes seven years for a trout lily to produce a flower!2 Individual flowers only last for a few days before they wilt, but the leaves can persist for months.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis, is a spring ephemeral
Nichole Ouellette, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Found in: Deciduous and mixed wood forests, along freshwater shorelines, and sometimes in meadows and clearings in ON, QU, NB, NS

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) gets its name from the red-orange sap that is found in its stem and roots. The sap contains sanguinaria, a potent toxin which attacks and destroys animal cells.3 While touching the sap is not likely to cause you any harm (you might get a rash and irritation), products made from sanguinaria extract are very dangerous. They’re also popular in alternative medicines, despite causing tissue necrosis (don’t Google it!).

From its outward appearance, you’d never know bloodroot harbours a dangerous toxin. Its white flowers are delicate and beautiful. Each flower has 8-20 petals arranged around yellow stamens. The flowers bloom before their leaves unfurl. It’s not uncommon to find the basal leaf wrapped around the flower’s stem. Bloodroot forms large colonies spreading vigorously through rhizomes.

Trilliums

Eastern Canada is known for its trilliums. We’re home to five species: painted trillium, white trillium, red trillium, drooping trillium, and nodding trillium. Here’s a little more about each one:

Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum)

Found in: Hardwood, mixed wood, and coniferous forests in NB, NS, ON, PEI, QU

Painted trillium (T. undulatum) is, in my opinion, the most beautiful trillium species found in Eastern Canada. The plant’s three white petals are “painted” with pink or reddish-purple streaks. It’s quite stunning!

The genus name “Trillium” denotes the plants’ leaf-like bracts, sepals, and petals that grow in groups of three. T. undulatum, gets its name from the wavy edges of its petals.

White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum)

Found in: Hardwood forests and mixed wood forests of ON, QU, NB, NS

White trillium (T. grandiflorum) is a favourite of white-tailed deer who love them and will choose them over other trillium species when feeding.4

In 1937, white trillium became the official flower of Ontario. Despite the persistent myth that picking trilliums in Ontario is illegal, there is no such law. However, given that the plant requires 7-10 years to bloom, it’s best to leave them undisturbed.5

Red Trillium (Trillium erectum)

Found in: NB, NS, ON, QU

Red trilliums (T. erectum) are smelly…like, really smelly! Their pungent odour is described as a mixture of rotting meat and sweet fruit. The plant emits this scent to trick carrion flies and beetles (who feed on dead animals) to visit it. As they get tricked by multiple flowers, they end up being efficient pollinators.

Nodding Trillium (Trillium cernuum)

Found in: Swampy deciduous and mixed wood forests in SK, MB, ON, QU, NB, PEI, NS, NFDL

Nodding trillium (T. cernuum) gets its name for the way its flower bows below its bracts. It’s also known as the whip-poor-will flower, because it blooms around the time whip-poor-will birds start to sing in the spring.

Drooping Trillium (Trillium flexipes)

Found in: Deciduous forests near running water in ON

Drooping trillium (T. flexipes) is a plant of “special concern” under the Canadian Species at Risk Act. This designation means that it’s not yet endangered, but facing threats that could cause it to become endangered. Habitat loss from agriculture, development, and recreation are its primary threats. Count yourself lucky should you run into it and give the plant a wide berth.

Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)

Found in: Deciduous and mixed woods forest, forest edges, and sometimes meadows in ON, QU, NS

The flowers of spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) grow on slender stems and bloom in clusters. They are small, star-shaped, and white with pink streaks going through them. The pink streaks on the flowers serve as nectar lines,6 helping pollinators to quickly locate the nectar within the flower.

Spring beauties are rich in nectar and provide food for a variety of pollinators. One bee, the spring beauty bee (Andrena erigenidae), relies exclusively on the flower.7 Spring beauties are so effective at attracting pollinators that other spring flowers, with little nectar, mimic their appearance to lure in pollinators.6

Spring Ephemerals in the Ecosystem

Ephemerals are an important part of the ecosystem, playing a key role in the cycling of nutrients. In early spring, they capture energy from the sun through photosynthesis, which they store as carbohydrates. They also pull and store nutrients from the soil. As the spring progresses, ephemerals die back and release some of these stored nutrients back into the soil.

These early-blooming plants are also a crucial source of nectar and pollen for early pollinators, which emerge from hibernation or migration when few other flowers are blooming. In particular, native bees rely heavily on spring ephemerals.

Tips For Finding Spring Ephemerals

Here are some tips to help you find spring ephemerals:

Familiarize yourself with the spring ephemerals growing near you. A local field guide or iNaturalist are helpful tools. iNaturalist allows you to browse others’ plant sightings and can help you pinpoint where ephemerals are growing. It also allows you to upload images of plants and receive identification help from a community of experts – all for free!

Timing is key when searching for ephemerals. iNaturalist recordings and local field guides will give you valuable information about bloom times. Generally, late March through early June is when you’ll want to get searching. Keep in mind, the exact timing can vary depending on your location and weather conditions. In New Brunswick, we don’t start seeing spring ephemerals until late April and early May, but parts of Nova Scotia and Southern Ontario see them in late March and early April.

Next, look for the right habitat. Spring ephemerals often thrive in rich, moist, but well-drained soils. Most prefer prefer deciduous and mixed wood forests, but may also grow in meadows and along waterways.

One last tip! Some spring ephemerals make their appearance around the beginning of mosquito season, so pack your bug spray or bring a bug jacket!

Happy Searching!

I hope you’ll be on the lookout for these plants on your next spring walk! If you do go searching for them, let me know what you found and where.

You Might Also Enjoy…

Acadian Forest: History, Species, and Biodiversity

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Tree Lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria)

Works Cited

1 Wildflowers of the Adirondacks: Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria). Adirondacks Forever Wild.

2 Sarah Coulber. “Trout Lily.” Canadian Wildlife Federation.

3 Justin Brower. “Bloodroot: The Harbinger of Spring That Will Melt Your Face Off.” Nature’s Poisons.

4 11 Facts Surprising Facts About Trilliums.” All Ontario.

5 Eric Pepler. “Can You Really Be Jailed For Picking Trilliums in Ontario?Reader’s Digest.

6 Marion Blois Lobstein. “Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica).” Prince William Wildflower Society.

7 Bill Duncan. “The Interesting and Important Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica).” OzarkBill.

2 comments on “Spring Ephemerals: A Guide to Early Season Wildflowers

  1. Your photos are beautiful. Would it be alright if I used the Dutchman’s Breeches on a website for the month of April – giving you credit of course – with a link to your blog? Please let me know – I’ve put it up there temporarily so you know how it would be used – but if you disagree, I’ll remove it.

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