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MASTER GARDENERS: Early thoughts on spring ephemerals

Spring ephemerals are early blooming, short-lived wildflowers that emerge in early spring and disappear by early summer. They develop above ground parts in March or April, in our area more aptly April or May. They flower quickly and develop seed and most die back to their underground parts in early summer. The word ephemeral literally means "lasting a short time." Some plants considered to be ephemerals do not die back after blooming in early spring and are also included here.

Spring ephemerals take advantage of early spring moisture and sunlight as spring days lengthen and the forest floor warms before the tree canopy develops. They usually last six to eight weeks before going dormant until the following spring. A walk in the woods in spring is like going on a treasure hunt for these delicate beauties that also provide an early source of pollen and nectar for pollinators. Resist the urge to dig these plants. Wildflowers should never be dug from the wild unless it is a rescue mission. However, you should be able to find them for purchase at reputable nurseries specializing in wildflowers.

If you choose to grow ephemerals in your garden, here are some considerations. Because they bloom early in spring before many of us are spending a lot of time in the garden, site them where they won't be missed, perhaps along a pathway or in view of a window. Consider the light and soil requirements of these plants. Most likely they will prefer a semi-shaded area with rich, loamy soil. Top dress with leaves or mulch. Since many ephemerals die back quickly, companion plants that can fill in the area are necessary. Best bets are shade perennials that emerge later like hostas and ferns. Spring ephemerals can be planted while actively growing or when they are dormant.

One of my favorite spring ephemerals, the trillium, grows in my garden. I have loved trilliums since I was a child and would find them in the woods on the farm where I grew up. Who doesn't love the waxy 3-petaled white flowers hidden among its umbrella of lance shaped leaves. Trilliums won't necessarily die back until later in summer.

May-apples (podophyllum peltatum) are another ephemeral that I grow. This plant emerges as a single stalk resembling an umbrella. It slowly opens to reveal its whorl of leaves and produces a solitary white flower which droops downward. The fruit is a yellow egg-shaped berry that contains 30 to 50 seeds.

Yellow trout lilies (Erythronium americanum) are true ephemerals, all parts of the plant will have died back by early summer. Trout lilies are small, 4- to 8-inch plants that produce a single yellow flower at the end of a stout nodding stem.

Jack-in-the-pulpits (Arisaema triphyllum) are another interesting addition to shade gardens and wooded areas. They're easily recognizable by the unusual flower that's produced in late May. In botanical terms, the "pulpit" is a spathe and the "Jack" is a flower-bearing spadix. Female flowers produce bright red berries revealed when the spathe dies in early fall.

Hepatica was so named because its leaves have three lobes resembling the human liver. Their thick leathery leaves lay close to the ground and are green all year. They produce beautiful lavender flowers emerging from the leaf litter. Minnesota has two hepatica species which can be differentiated by their leaves. Round-lobed hepatica have round tips on the leaf lobes while the sharp-lobed hepatica leaves end in a point.

These are only a few of the spring ephemerals that are native to Minnesota. Soon we should see them emerging to truly announce that spring has arrived.

Information on growing wildflowers and many other early gardening topics can be found in the Yard and Garden section of the University of Minnesota website www.extension.umn.edu/garden/yardgarden/. An excellent site to view and learn about Minnesota wildflowers is www.minnesotawildflowers.info.

Master Gardeners are now responding to your gardening questions via their voicemail service. Call (218) 444-7916; leave your name, number, and question and a Master Gardener will respond.

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