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Spring Ephemerals: Masters of Adaptation

Trillions of trilliums thrive on a hillside.

Spring ephemerals are absolute masters at adapting to their environment. Having evolved for millions of years, these epic flowers synchronize their reproductive cycles with the deciduous forests in which they thrive. Not only do they complete their life cycles before nearby trees have leafed out, but they have even developed clever ways to maintain their populations. We admire these particular flowers because they have gracefully evolved into one of the most resilient representations of the natural world.

All of the extraordinary wildflowers in this photo essay were found this spring on a nature preserve owned and protected by Conserving Carolina.

Why are they Ephemeral?

Max Howes, Land Management Coordinator and Emily Powell, Habitat Restoration Associate, search for Dutchman’s breeches and its look-alike, Squirrel corn amongst the trilliums.

Ephemeral refers to transitory, or short-lived. While trees lie dormant, these plants have a very narrow window to surface, flower, and reproduce. They are found in deciduous forests with a deep cover of leaf litter and rich, moist soils high in organic matter.

The flowers are extremely delicate and may even take years to bloom. But they don’t just look beautiful. These fleeting flowers are experts in adaptation, learning how to take advantage of the full sunlight, extra nutrients, and longer days to maintain their small populations.

Spring Ephemerals Are Different From Other Plants Because They:

  • Risk the inherent dangers of lingering frost and surprise snowstorms.
  • Complete their entire above-ground cycle within just a few weeks.
  • Wait for only perfect conditions to grow and reproduce.
  • Close petals at night to protect the pollen and other reproductive parts from the cold and rain.
  • Rely on symbiotic relationships with insects to spread seeds and maintain their populations. In exchange for providing both pollen and nectar, the seeds are carried by ants back to their underground nests, enabling germination.

    Sweet white trillium (Trillium simile)

Spring Ephemerals in Western North Carolina:

Here is a list of some spring ephemerals you may be able to spot in Western North Carolina. In many regions, these plants have difficulty reproducing and prefer specific soils, so transplanting for personal use is discouraged.


(Sanguinaria canadensis)

Beneath the soil, it sprouts from a reddish root with bright orange sap. Its petals are quickly shed within a day or two of pollination, so the flowering display is very short-lived.

Cutleaf toothwort

(Cardamine concatenata)

Growing on the forest floor or wooded slopes, its flowers range from white to light purple or light pink. It is most easily identified by its dissected and coarsely toothed leaves. The underground rhizome also resembles an animal tooth, in reference to its name.

Dutchman’s breeches

(Dicentra cucullaria)

These flowers resemble white pantaloons that appear to be drying on a clothesline. Its reproductive fate relies on a symbiotic relationship with queen bumblebees, in which they exchange nectar for pollination. It also has a look-alike called Squirrel Corn, which is completely white without a yellow ‘belt’.

Squirrel corn

(Dicentra canadensis)

Squirrel corn is a look-alike of Dutchman’s breeches as it resembles the same white pantaloons drying from a line. However, it differs by its more heart-shaped flowers and does not have a yellow waistband like Dutchman’s breeches.

Fire pink

(Silene virginica)

Fire pink’s principal pollinator is the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, which is attracted by the flowers bright red petals and sugary nectar.

Foam flower

(Tiarella cordifolia)

A charming, shade-loving groundcover, this flower is tolerant to both deer and rabbits. The Genus name comes from the Greek word tiara, meaning a small crown, in reference to the form of the fruit.

Great white trillium

(Trillium grandiflorum)

Trillium grandiflorum is slow growing. Its seeds have double dormancy – taking at least two years to fully germinate! Like most species of Trillium, growth is very slow in nature. It can take between seven to ten years to reach flowering size!

Sweet white trillium

(Trillium simile)

The leaves on its stem are actually modified, called bracks, and its true leaves stay underground connected to the rhizome. It is also commonly known as Jeweled wakerobin.

Spring beauty

(Claytonia virginica)

Usually seen in loose clusters of 5 or more flowers, the white and pink stripes on its petals direct pollinators inward for pollination. It is rooted in a corm, which is an edible base referred to as a ‘Fairy Spud’, said to taste like boiled chestnuts.

Yellow trout lily

(Erythronium umbilicatum)

Yellow trout lily can be identified by its nodding flower and mottled leaves that resemble the speckled scales of a trout. They can take upwards of eight years to flower!

Virginia bluebells

(Mertensia virginica)

Part of what makes the Bluebell so admired is its naturally blue flowers. Blue flowers in nature are so rare that only 10 percent of the 280,000 flowering plant species worldwide have blue blooms.

Wild ginger

(Asarum acuminatum)

Named for the long root/rhizome, which has a strong, gingery smell, Wild Ginger should not be confused with culinary ginger (Zingiber officinale) which originates from Asia; the root of Asarum species contains carcinogens.

We think everyone can learn a thing or two from these unique wildflowers.

As we adapt to COVID-19 during this time, we encourage you to get outside to observe the magic of spring ephemerals. As masters of adaptation, they can teach us all something about growth, even in the most unlikely circumstances.

After being indoors for an entire winter, it is refreshing to watch the forest floor slowly transition into lively bursts and observe green stems propping up with vivid colors. Seeing familiar friends, the songbirds, beetles, bumblebees, and observing nature not only inspires life’s possibilities but also encourages us to advance ourselves. Hiking along a trail and seeing colorful petals peeking through the leaf litter is a memorable experience, and surely one that reminds us winter doesn’t last forever.

Written by AmeriCorps Communications and Education Associate Rachel Hess. Botanical expertise provided by AmeriCorps Habitat Restoration Associate Emily Powell and Southeast Stewardship Manager Pam Torlina.

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