With the arrival of warmer April temperatures, the group of plants known as spring ephemerals have started to come up here in the woods of southern Michigan.
“Ephemeral” means “short-lived,” and this is the case with spring ephemerals. These forest herbs grow, flower, and often die back in the span of only a few weeks in the early spring.
During this time of year, deciduous woodland trees have yet to grow new leaves. Spring ephemerals take advantage of this to capture the abundant warm sunshine that reaches the forest floor to help fuel their growth.
True ephemerals will die back to their underground parts (rhizomes, roots, and bulbs) shortly after flowering and going to seed. There are, however, other plants considered to be ephemeral that have shoots and leaves that persist into the summer. I’m not going to distinguish between the two here.
Spring ephemerals produce some of the showiest wild flowers to be found all year. This is because they rely on insects for pollination, and insects aren’t terribly common this early in the spring. Instead of attracting certain insects, most of these plants attract any insect interested in nectar. Flowers are often visited by a wide variety of pollinators, including ants, flies, bees, beetles, moths, and butterflies.
These abundant and showy flowers make mid-April to mid-May a great time to stroll through hardwood forests. By the end of May these flowers will be gone, overshadowed by the dense foliage of the forest canopy.
In the next few weeks I’ll write individual articles about many of these plants. Since insects won’t become abundant until later in the spring, I expect the organism content here over the next few weeks will lean towards plants.