Spring Ephemerals – Early Bloomers for Your Backyard Habitat

Trout Lilies Flowers in Bloom in Early Spring. Photo by Donna L. Long.
Trout Lilies Flowers in Bloom in Early Spring. Photo by Donna L. Long.

Spring Ephemerals are native flowers which grow, flower, and set seed within a two-month period in late spring  or early summer. This group of flowers are important nectar and pollen sources for early flying bees, flies, other insects, and ants. They are useful in your backyard habitat garden for attracting early flying butterflies and pollinators.

What are Spring Ephemerals?

Spring ephemerals are members of a guild of flowers. A guild describes species that have similar ways of living in their environments. Ephemerals complete their above ground reproduction cycle within a two-month period after the ground thaws and before the tree canopy leafs out and blocks these low-growing flowers from receiving sunlight.

Among the true ephemerals, the flowers fade and the leaves die and decay after blooming. Evidence that the plant ever was present disappear above ground. The species spend the rest of the year as underground roots, corms or rhizomes. Only a few species have these characteristics.

There are many articles online and off, which lists plants that don’t meet the criteria of behavior of a spring ephemeral. Some articles list plants that are simply spring blooming flowers not ephemerals. The criteria and species I’ve listed meet the scientific definition for the spring ephemeral guild.

Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica) in my back garden
Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica) in my back garden

Virginia Bluebells in My Garden

Virginia Bluebells have been living in a shady area of my garden for many years. When they bloom in the spring, I am amazed at the beauty and lovely sky blue of the flowers. Look at that blue, how can it possibly be real?

But, I never know if they will return or not. Once the plants flower I make sure I place stakes where they are underground. I don’t want to accidentally dig them up. All above ground evidence of the plant disappears completely, just like the rest of the true ephemerals.

Ephemerals in the Environment

Spring ephemerals grow low to the ground in the rich woodland soil of the Eastern Deciduous Forest. They are found in the Blue Ridge Province from southern Pennsylvania to northern Georgia. Many of the flowers are cup-shaped. The colors are mostly white or yellow with the beautiful blue of Virginia Bluebells as an exception. The flowers close up at night or on cloudy days.

These plants don’t bloom for long. They rapidly complete their above ground growth in a few weeks. The blossom open and are pollinate by bees and flies. Bees and flies are attract by the nectar or pollen.

Once the fruit is pollinated and matures, a seed is produced. This is where the ants may come in. The species pollinated by ants produce an oily substance (lipids) that coats the seeds. The ants carry the seeds away from the plants, eat the oily coating and discard the hard seed. The seeds may grow into new plants. Other species of ephemerals have methods of asexual reproduction in case cloudy, wet weather prevents pollinating insects from getting the job done.

During the short time the plants are above ground and blooming, they generate and store enough food in their underground tubers, corms, or rhizomes to last until the following spring. The stored food powers the next year’s early spring growth. Truly remarkable plants.

Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica). Photo courtesy FWS.org

Spring Ephemerals in the Backyard Habitat

These plants are useful when you are trying to figure out what to add to your backyard habitat garden to provide food as winter breaks. These flowers provide early flying bees, flies, and butterflies with the food they need. The flowers attract pollinators with nectar guides on petals, bright colors or subtle scents. The flowers provide nectar and pollen before many trees flower. And they can be planted beneath trees (expect maybe Black Walnut) because they flower and die back before the trees leaf out and shade out later-blooming flowers.

The plants are often available for sale from nurseries and environmental centers that sell native plants. You may have special order what you want.

West Coast Spring Ephemerals?

I couldn’t find a list when I searched online for a list of west coast spring ephemeral plants. Perhaps in conifer forests they wouldn’t exist due to the year-around shaded forest floor, but they may in other habitats. If you know of any ephemerals for areas besides the east coast, let us know in the comments below.

The Spring Ephemerals

The Lone Species

Wood Anemone (Anemone quinquefolia) – ants disperse the seeds

Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica) – the long tube of the flower limits what insect species can access the nectar, The species include Bumble bees, honey bees, mason bees, and a few others). One of the most important early nectar sources for early-season Bumble bees.

Cut-leaved toothwort (Dentaria laciniata) – the principal food of two native White butterflies, the Mustard White (Pieris napi) and West Virginia White (Pieris virginiensis)

Trout Lilies and Dutchmen's Breeches Flowers in Bloom in Early Spring. Photo by Donna L. Long.
Trout Lilies and Dutchmen’s-Breeches Flowers in Bloom in Early Spring. Photo by Donna L. Long.

The Dicentras

Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis) -similar to Dutchman’s breeches but blooms later in the spring, Outer petals are rounded into a heart instead of pant legs

Dutchman’s-breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) – only a female Bumble bee can open the hinged inner petals and has a long enough proboscis to reach the nectar stored deep in the spur. Often robbed by ants and bees. Ants disperse seeds.

The Claytonias

The Claytonias are visited by small native bees and flies for pollen and/or nectar

Virginia Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) – pollinated by bees and small butterflies, visited by as many as 71 different species of insects

Carolina Spring Beauty (Claytonia caroliniana) – ants carry the seeds back to their nests where they eat the oily substance coating the seeds.

Trout Lilies Flowers in Bloom in Early Spring. Photo by Donna L. Long.
Trout Lilies Flowers in Bloom in Early Spring. Photo by Donna L. Long.

The Trout Lilies

The Trout Lilies (Erythronium spp.) produce nectar which feeds native bees, beetles, and bee flies.

White Trout Lily (Erythronium albidum) – the principal food of two native White butterflies, the Mustard White (Pieris napi) and West Virginia White (Pieris virginiensis)

Yellow Adder’s Tongue (Erythronium americanum) – earliest blooming lily.

Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium umbilicatum)


These early blooming flowers answer the questions of what the bees we seeing flying around in March and early April find to eat. I bet these plants are endangered in many places. We can help conservation efforts in several ways by planting these plants in our gardens.

Bees, flies, and butterflies will appreciate the nectar. Ants will feast on the oily-coated seeds. And female Mustard White and West Virginia White butterflies will find a place to lay their eggs.

I hope you found this information useful.  If you have info or comment, drop in the box below.

Resources Consulted

Ellison, George, “Spring Ephemerals: Strategies Reconsidered”, Notes of the Pennsylvania Native Plant Society, vol.10, no.1 Jan-Mar, 2007.

Gracie, Carol. Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History. 1st ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012.

“Spring Ephemerals” – Lecture handout, 2008 from Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve

“Knowing the Spring Ephemerals”, Lecture 2008 – Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, New Hope, Pa.

More Early Blooming Information

Spring Starts from the Ground Up

Trout Lilies are Early Spring Ephemerals

“Native Spring Ephemerals” – BrooklynBotanicalGardens.org

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