April 18, 2019
Sometimes in March and April it seems like winter will never loosen its grip. Then a warm spring rain muddies up the well and the rush is on. With the snow melted, life becomes brown again— wood pile, dog poop, leaves, yard tools, and grass—all brown. But not for long.
On a foggy and wet day last week, as the sun hid herself behind the clouds, I huddled on the old wooden Adirondack chair, under two jackets, the little brown dogs at my side. A lone song sparrow had returned to the yard two days earlier inspecting the old brush pile, now singing as if he had never left. After winter’s silence, his warble promised bursting buds, pink mouths of nestlings gaping wide, and my own pale skin warming in the sun. But his spring-board tune will soon become part of summer’s backdrop, one voice among all the other males of the summer breeding chorus. I won’t take notice of it again, until in its absence, the yard falls quiet, the songbirds gone.
It is a wonder we accomplish anything in the spring, for all the distractions. Just watching and worrying over all the returning migrants can take hours from a day. Then, up in the rich woods, when the spring flowers start to bloom, I may as well put a “gone fishing” sign on the door. Ephemerals, after all are here but a moment.
With the little brown dogs pulling firmly against the leash and noses sniffing double time, we headed up into the freshly thawed rich, wet forest above the house, being careful to stay on the path and not damage the fragile ground. We were surrounded by one-inch shoots, looking like asparagus, piercing through the leaf litter. Even my weak olfactory could smell the onions in the air—wild leeks Allium tricoccum.
Spring ephemerals, like the wild ramps we saw, are woodland flowers who have adapted to life in the deep forest. Dependent on rich, moist forest soils, yet limited by a short window of sunlight after the ground thaws and before the trees leaf out, these plants must be ready to go. Shoots that push through the muck in May began to grow towards the leaf litter last fall.
These early flowers and fruits are fueled partly from their high rate of photosynthesis, and partly from carbohydrates stored below ground in perennial organs—corms, rhizomes, or tubers. Ephemerals have two growth periods—the epigeous period in spring—when they produce flowers, fruits, and seeds; followed by the much late—hypogeous fall and winter growth period—when the storage organ sends down roots and sends up shoots. These are tough little plants absorbing nutrients and water in the cold. Fortunately, some have fungi-buddies, mycorrhiza that help.
Just when non-forest flowers are beginning to bloom, June’s warming temperatures and shady canopies trigger the leaves of ephemerals to die back—to senesce. Nutrients are reabsorbed into the corm and a period of dormancy of a few months follows. When we hike these woods in September, we won’t be aware of it, but the lower temperatures will have triggered hypogeous growth of roots and the beginning of sprouts. The wild ramps we see are an exception; we won’t find their flowers until the June, when the leaves are gone. We’ll find the seeds on stalks looking like old dandelion heads in September.
Many woodland flowers co-evolved with ants for dispersal of their seeds. These seeds grow fatty packets called eliaosomes, yummy food for ants who carry the seeds back for their larvae in the nests. The seeds are thrown on the ant compost pile unharmed where they germinate. Myrmecochory is the scientific name for this process. Pronounced: Mur-me-co-cory, accent first and last syllables.
Ephemerals grow very slowly, some taking eight years to flower. As a late-successional species, it can take up to 20 years for them to reappear after a disturbance. We should be thoughtful if we choose to harvest wild ramps by only pulling the greens and taking a bit from here and there, and should not dig up the others at all. Large deer populations take a toll on these delicious early edibles.
Some spring ephemerals we see around our Vermont woods are Round-leaved Hepatica (Hepatica nobilis var. obtuse), Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum), Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris), Spring Beauty (Claytonia caroliniana), Red Trillium(Trillium erectum), Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum), Starflower (Trientalis borealis), Dutchman’s Breeches(Dicentra cucullaria), Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis), Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), and Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum).
We can feel special here in New England, as spring ephemerals are only found in deciduous forests of North America, Japan and Russia. Vermont is fortunate to have a band of calcium-rich rock running the length of the state—the Waits River formation. When continents collided and mountains rose up, those mountains immediately began to erode filling in the basins on either side with sediments. Eventually, warm, shallow seas abundant with marine life filled the basins. Simply put, dead sea organisms and calcium carbonates from the water became our calcium-rich rocks and soils allowing for wonderful Vermont farms and the spring ephemerals the little dogs and I so love to see when the snow melts, and we are finally out hiking the woods.