Virginia Ephemerals – Spice up the Spring Garden

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Umbrella Plant

Do you occasionally get tired of the too well organized garden scene?

Have you dabbled in the spontaneity of ephemeral-like plants such as daffodils and crocus?

These plants will bring a boost of color to your garden and your mood after a long winter nap…

Ephemeral plants pop up early in the Spring – grow, flower, set seed, and start to curl back into the ground as most trees are leafing out. These plants evolved to take advantage of early spring sun in woodland settings, before the forest canopy fills in. Ephemeral plants vary as much in their forms and habit as their namesakes. For example:

  • Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum): Two ‘umbrella’ leaves perch over one white flower, produces a single berry, can form a small carpet of plants in a woodland setting.
  • Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica): Large grey-green leaves, pink buds, blue trumpet shaped flowers, and when in mass makes a great spring show.
  • Trilliums (Trillium): Trilliums have a single stem with a whorl of a 3 petal flower over 3 sepals, perched above 3 leaves. Of note – The bloom smell can range from fruity to carrion – so choose your variety wisely!
  • Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria): That is just an awesome name for a plant! The foliage is fern-like and thick, and the flower stalk rises above. The flowers clustered up the stalk are white, nodding, and double-spurred (“pantaloon-shaped” if you will).

Some ephemerals may naturally find their way into your garden:

  • Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), and
  • Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum).

Most ephemerals can be tucked in between your shrubs and traditional perennials without changing the gardens’ long-term appearance. You could also use ephemerals to spice up a barren tree ring, but not worry about the foliage when mulch time approaches. Occasionally ephemerals, i.e. Wild Geranium, can get out of control depending on the competition your established plants offer. As with all plants, choose ephemerals based on the conditions in your individual garden.

If you want see these plants in the wild or a garden setting:

  • Hit the Appalachian Trail or just about any trail on the Skyline Drive in Spring
  • Explore the woods in your backyard or local area park/nature trail
  • The Virginia Native Plant Society offers spring walks to view ephemerals
  • Master Gardeners of Northern VA have a range of ephemerals in their various gardens

I recommend the old-school route – get a Virginia wildflower book and take a walk in the woods. Your perfect match is out there – remember, with ephemerals, it is all about timing!

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