The glory of spring is found not only in the green leaves unfolding from our native trees, but also the wildflowers emerging from the forest floor. They twinkle like colorful stars, each claiming their moment in the sun, fading away before the trees are fully adorned with leaves.
Throughout the eastern U.S. and Canada, these flowers called spring ephemerals contribute not only to nature’s artistiåc palette for humans to enjoy, but also to the ecosystem in which they grow, providing food to myriad insects, for starters.
It’s not been easy for spring ephemerals to thrive over the past five decades. Invasive plants, over browsing by deer, human disturbance, and other factors have led to the decline of spring ephemerals, which in turn leads to degraded woodlands.
Invasive plants—those introduced from another country and which usurp our native ones—add toxins to the soil that harm wildflowers and disrupt ecology. One example is the ubiquitous, non-native garlic mustard.
“It’s what’s called alleopathic,” says Tom Smith, stewardship coordinator for the Lake County Forest Preserves. “Where it grows, it won’t let other seeds germinate around it. Garlic mustard creates a monoculture. Where we might have at least a dozen species in a square meter, when garlic mustard takes over, there’s only one species left.”
Nature lovers have hosts of volunteers and biologists to thank for organizing garlic mustard pulls to relieve woodlands of the invasive species. They’re also removing non-native buckthorn and culling deer, which has helped revive populations of great white trillium. (Too bad deer don’t like garlic mustard.)
Most nature lovers understand the need to remove such species to help the native wildflowers grow.
But let’s dig a little deeper to understand how these ephemerals contribute not only to our enjoyment but also to a healthy woodland.
Consider our native bumblebees. The queen slumbers below the soil in winter, filled with eggs. When she emerges at the first sign of spring, she needs food. And she can find it in one of the earliest of spring ephemerals, Dutchman’s breeches.
Other insects also pollinate spring ephemerals. These flowers give those insects the boost they need to start their long season of raising young and pollinating other native plants in the ecosystem.
Meanwhile, ants disperse seeds of spring ephemerals. Ants feed the nutritious appendages of the seeds to their young. In the process, they deposit the seeds and germinate them. And as the wildflowers’ spent blooms fall to the forest floor, they add microscopic nutrients to the soil.
We can’t readily see everything that’s going on in the spring woodlands—but we can rejoice when we see wild geranium, trillium, Dutchmans’ breeches, and other spring ephemerals blooming in profusion. Then we know we’re in a healthy ecosystem.