FIVE EARLY SPRING EPHEMERALS ALONG THE AT
What Are Spring Ephemerals?
As the snow fell thickly yesterday in Central Vermont, my thoughts wandered to the colorful show of wildflowers that Nature displays from spring to fall. Early spring wildflowers are known as spring ephemerals because they last for a very short time. At lower elevations in the southern Appalachians, spring ephemerals emerge and begin to bloom in early March and fade in April. At higher elevations and further north, the appearance of leaves and subsequent blooming is delayed by several weeks or more.
Why Do Spring Ephemerals Fade So Quickly?
Spring ephemerals begin to grow during the weeks between snow melt and before trees leaf out, when sunlight reaches and warms the forest floor. The leaves of spring ephemerals poke through the leaf litter. Some plants bud and blossom. Others do not flower because they have to produce leaves for several years before they blossom. Once trees leaf out and the forest floor is shaded, early spring ephemerals wither.
What Are The Top 5 Early Spring Ephemerals?
● Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) has a white flower of 8 to 12 petals growing within a single leaf with 5 to 9 deep lobes. The leaf embraces the stalk from which the flower emerges. The stem and root, if broken, exude a reddish-orange juice. Bloodroot grows in small clusters in rich woods.
● Bluets or Quaker bonnets (Housatonia caerulea) have small, delicate, pale-blue or white flowers with four petals and a yellow center. Bluets grow in large clusters in grassy meadows, fields, and open woods.
● Round-lobed hepatica (Hepatica americana) has leaves of 3 rounded lobes. Sharp-lobed hepatica (H. acutiloba) has leaves of 3 pointed lobes. Both have hairy stalks and flowers (6-10 petal-like sepals) may be white, pink, lavender, or blue. They grow in leafy woods.
● Spring beauties (Claytonia) have 5-petaled pink or white flowers veined with darker pink which grow in large colonies in rich woods. Virginia spring beauty (C. virginica) has narrow, lance-like leaves and grows in moist woods. Carolina spring beauty (C. caroliniana) has broader leaves and grows at higher elevations.
● Trout lily (Erythronium americanum) has two mottled leaves (that look like the skin of a trout!) with one nodding, yellow flower. If you see one leaf and no flower, it means the plant needs another year or more to grow two leaves before it flowers. Trout lily grows in colonies in moist woods.
How To Identify Spring Ephemerals?
There are many phone apps to help identify wildflowers. The one I use is iNaturalist (www.inaturalist.org). Once you download the app, you can explore what others have observed in a particular area or make your own observations by uploading a photograph of the plant. If you think you know what the flower is, you can name it, or the app will give you suggestions, including photographs and descriptions. At a later date, one or more people may check your observations for accuracy. You can also join other citizen scientists along the AT, as iNaturalist has a project called Flowers and Fauna Along the Appalachian Trail Corridor.
What Are You Seeing Along The AT?
Of course, there are other early spring ephemerals, including Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), Rue anemone (Anemonella thalicroides), and Trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens). These early spring ephemerals are followed by later spring ephemerals such as Sweet white trillium (Trillium simile), Blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalicroides), Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum). And the list goes on. I will be out there next month. In the meantime, I would love to hear what you are seeing along the AT!
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