Spring Ephemerals

By April 25, 2010 Uncategorized 6 Comments

Okay gang, today we’re going to talk about spring ephemerals.

I do this, in a roundabout fashion, because while you’re probably all sick of hearing me talk about invasive species, it occurs to me that many people don’t know why it’s a bad thing to have an invasive species around, other than something like kudzu. Kudzu’s easy. Convincing people that kudzu is bad is like convincing them that nuclear war might be a trifle unpleasant. You just show them photos of kudzu eating somebody’s truck and then multiply that by the twelve thousand square miles of the south it’s eaten.* The stuff grows up to a foot a day, which means, for the more diabolically minded among us, that if you left somebody hog-tied in a kudzu thicket, the odds are good the plant’d get ’em before they managed to die of thirst. Particularly if it was a wet enough spring that the plant was really goin’ strong and they could suck some moisture off the leaves.

Boy, that’s a thought, isn’t it?

Okay. Hadn’t planned to spend that long with kudzu. Kinda got away from me with the grisly murder and all. However, when you’re dealing with something that isn’t quite as…dramatic…as kudzu, it makes more sense to start at the beginning.

Cast your mind back, O best beloved, to early spring. It’s been a long winter. Months of gray days. The trees are bare. And up through the snow comes a crocus.

And there was much rejoicing. Spring is coming! We aren’t all going to be crushed under the weight of the Fimbul Winter! Hooray little crocus!

(Actually crocuses aren’t American natives, but they’re the best illustration of this particular point, and the one we’re probably most familiar with. They’re pretty unobjectionable plants, though, unless you have a rock garden, in which case they’ve been known to sneak into areas where you’d rather not have them. You can plant all the crocuses you want, I won’t yell. I’m not a purist, I just want everybody to get along.)

Crocuses, and a whole lot of other plants, are spring ephemerals, which means they pop up earlier than everything else, before the leaves are on the trees. There’s a great advantage to this–sunlight’s hitting the ground, which it won’t be when the trees leaf out. Some of these plants, like bloodroot and Virginia bluebell, throw out leaves, flower, and then vanish in a few weeks, going dormant during the hot season. Others, like Celandine poppy, which I talked about a few weeks back, does all its vegetative growing in this sunny stretch, and then hangs out in the shade for the rest of the year dropping seeds and going “La la, I’m a plant, happy plant, la la la…”

It’s an efficient system. You grow like crazy in the early sunlight, when the sun is cool and soft on your tender little leaves, then the trees grow in and shade you before you roast in late spring and summer.  You go dormant and settle down to wait until next spring. The ephemerals would be pretty and inherently neat even if that was all they did. But they’re actually important for one major reason–the bees.

In early spring, the bees have overwintered, eaten everything in the hive, and they are ravenous. And most of the good hearty meals of nectar aren’t out yet. Around here, the salvias don’t open for business until April, blueberries aren’t flowering until late March, the indigos aren’t really in the mood until late spring. What’s a bee to do?

The answer, of course, is spring ephemerals. The bees are out there on the bloodroot and the bluebells and the wood poppies, getting their first meal of the year.

If you figure that most plants are solid 9-to-5 workers, the spring ephemerals are the guys getting up at 4 AM to make coffee and donuts. Imagine a whole hive full of grumpy newly-awakened females who can’t get their antennae pointing in the same direction without coffee, and you get an idea of the vital role our spring ephemerals are playing.

This is a great system. This is a finely evolved system, and it works well.

The problem is when you get a plant that evolved in another part of the world and may be on a different time frame, and the system starts to go haywire.

Japanese honeysuckle, aka screaming buttweed, is the first green thing out there.  Many other invasives are similar–this is why they’re so successful. They leaf out sooner. They steal a march on everybody. They cast shade underneath them much earlier. So up come the bloodroot and his other ephemeral buddies, ready to make the donuts and put the coffee pot on for the bees…and they’re in shade. Unexpected shade. Lethal shade. The baker arrives at his shop and finds that a gang has taken over and is slapping lead pipes into their palms in a meaningful fashion and informing him that he will not be getting his shipments of supplies any longer because this is their turf now, and they don’t want his coffee.

It’s a function of many fairy tales that shadows, once detached, can kill you. This is just like those fairy tales–the unseasonable shadows of these leaves can kill the things under them. (Norway maple, an invasive tree, casts such dense shade compared to native maples that it throttles the understory plants under them, even the ones who would normally come up later in the year. Plus it’s poisonous. Norway maple is hardcore unpleasant.)

So the bees wake up and go looking for breakfast, and they find green, but no flowers. Could’ve sworn there was a bakery here last year, but now it’s all pawnshops and bail bonds. Ugh. The neighborhood has really gone to hell, hasn’t it?

Wherever our shade-casting thugs are from originally, it’s likely that there are spring ephemerals that wake up on the same schedule…but they’re not here, and even if they were, there’s no telling if our bees would like them. Dedicated coffee drinkers will not be pleased if you tell them that a shot of Red Bull is now the only option. And it’s possible that over time, our spring ephemerals may evolve to leaf out before their new shady overlords–but that sort of thing happens on evolutionary time, not human time, and bees need to eat now.

If the pollinators ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

So! Having said all that, how can we fix it?

Well, fortunately there’s a very easy way…you can plant spring ephemerals! Virginia bluebells, bloodroot, wood poppy, spicebush–all of them are commerically available through nurseries. You might have to go mail-order, (www.nichegardens.com) but you can definitely get them. Many of them are quite easy to grow, put on a spectacular early show, and then vanish completely. Some of them, like bloodroot, are just plain cool. You can overplant them with other things that will leaf out later in the year (which is practically everything.) Get a show, feed the bees–it’s really win-win.

And the other, rather more long term way, is to get rid of those invasives that are overshadowing these guys or chewing up their habitat completely–Norway maple, Japanese honeysuckle, English ivy, multiflora rose, check your local listings.

I definitely need to plant some more spring flowers for the bees myself.

Tune in next week for more gardening theatre, assuming I have not been hog-tied and left in a kudzu patch.


*People occasionally point out that you can make soap and whatnot out of it. I am not sure how fast we would have to make soap for it to have a significant effect. And how many square miles of soap can you make from twelve thousand square miles of kudzu, anyway? Where would we PUT it?


  • Dottie says:

    I’m glad to see someone else fighting the good fight against invasives. My father has been working on a patch of kudzu for years and finally killed it all only to look around and see Japanese stilt grass everywhere.

    He was not happy.

  • UrsulaV says:

    Oh lord, Japanese stiltgrass! I had my first experience with it a few years ago, and my knee-jerk reaction was “Nothing that grows this vigorously can mean well.”

    Your father has my profound sympathy. I hear you can mow it before it seeds and try to control it that way…as long as seeds aren’t coming in from all sides.

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