Free Press columnist Georgeanne Davis
Free Press columnist Georgeanne Davis
Even though spring seems to be progressing nicely — daffodils and tulips blooming, dandelions popping up, robins yanking worms from the grass — the flip-flopping temperatures stressed our dwindling wood supply to the point where we have been making biweekly forays into the woods to replenish it. I’m ambivalent about these trips: on the plus side, it’s beautiful to be outside on a warm day, and exercise that results in a tangible gain (wood to keeps us warm) is always more appealing to me than that done on a treadmill or stationary bike. On the negative side, my partner loves riding like a bat out of Hell straight uphill on his four-wheeler, through runoff puddles and muddy ruts, over rocks and fallen limbs, while I cling on for dear life, burying my face in his jacket against whipping branches. It’s both an exhilarating and terrifying ride, but once we arrive in an area to cut I have time to poke around and explore while he fires up the chainsaw. With every hundred feet or so that we gain in elevation, spring drops back in time, so that we finally arrive in a place where only the very earliest of spring plants have poked up through the thick brown duff on the forest floor. While I see tiny speckled leaves of trout lilies, the feathery ones of Dutchman’s breeches, and rosettes of rue anemone, the only plants in bloom are pale, pink-veined, spring beauties, or Claytonia, with swathes of the delicate starry blossoms drifting throughout the woodland as far as the eye can see. While we hope to spot and harvest some ramps, or wild onions, it is a bit too early for them, so when we check back for them in a couple of weeks, I expect to find trout lilies, Dutchman’s breeches, bloodroot, trillium and rue anemone, possibly even Jack-in-the-pulpits, in bloom.

All of these flowers are referred to as spring ephemerals, a name almost as meltingly lovely as their presence. They are plants that have a small window of sunshine between snowmelt and leaf-out in which to grow, flower, be pollinated, and produce seeds. By mid-June the deciduous trees above them will cover the forest floor in deep shade and these ephemerals will disappear in the heat of the summer, retreating underground until next year.

Spring ephemerals thrive in the leaf litter found in undisturbed woodlands, such as those where we cut our firewood, but a walk on almost any woodland trail in the next week or so may reveal some of the blooms. Unfortunately, habitat fragmentation is a major threat to the survival of spring ephemerals. Unlike plants whose seeds are dispersed by birds or wind, ephemeral seeds are dispersed by insects, including, in the case of spring beauties, ants. Spring beauty seeds aren’t carried very far from the parent plants, so they tend to grow in colonies not far from the parent plant. Other ephemerals are pollinated by bumble bees, flies and, a few, by butterflies. In the best of times, spring ephemerals face a number of obstacles to pollination, including a short blooming season, pollinator-sharing due to overlap in flowering times, and inclement weather such as we’ve had in the past few weeks, with unexpected warmth followed by cold snow showers, which interrupts insect activity. Human activity, overpopulation of herbivores like deer, and other threats add to their fragility.

The good news is that many nurseries in Maine sell woodland plants they’ve propagated themselves and, if you have a wooded area on the fringes of your yard or garden, you can establish an early-spring garden of your own. To enjoy these spring wildflowers in your garden, site them in well-drained acidic soil in dappled sunlight. Plant the rootstock of young specimens two to three inches deep. Over time, they will grow as much as six inches into the soil. Be gentle with the corms, as root damage can stunt the plants, requiring more time for them to establish. Soil must be kept moist throughout the spring. While the corms can withstand summer drought, they’ll need some moisture in fall for root growth. To conserve moisture, mulch in the fall or very early spring using finely shredded leaves. Spring ephemerals can be planted in early fall while the soil is still warm, or early in the spring. Spring plantings have some time to develop before summer dormancy, but will rarely produce any flowers during their first year. An early fall planting allows the roots time to establish properly before winter and gives the plants a stronger start the following spring. Once your plants are fully established, they’ll start to spread on their own. At that point, it should be safe to divide them, when the bloom has past and the plant is starting to fade for the summer.

As mentioned, spring ephemerals quickly disappear after they’ve bloomed, so they need companion plants that will bloom through summer and prevent weeds from settling in. Good companion plants for spring ephemerals are other woodland species that will cover the bare spots after they have gone dormant in May or June. Native ferns, Jacob’s ladder, columbines, ferns and wild ginger are some popular choices.