Red trillium

With warmer weather and longer days locally, the flora of Western New York has begun to “wake up” from its season-long slumber.  This means that it is time for the “early birds” of the Northern hardwood forest to take advantage of the sunlight that reaches the floor this early in the spring. 

​The spring ephemerals are the first plants to wake up and flower as the days begin to lengthen.  For the most part, their entire reproductive cycle takes place during the short time period between the melting of the last snow and the development of an over-story canopy in the forest. Some of the familiar plants that exemplify this specialized behavior are the Trillium (Melanthiaceae), Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica), Trout Lily (Erythronium), and Toothwort (Lathraea).  These species have a small window of sunlight between snowmelt and leaf-out in which to grow, flower, be pollinated, and produce seeds. By the time the deciduous trees that tower above have covered the forest floor in deep shade, usually by June, the spring ephemerals have disappeared, retreating underground until next year.

​The word ephemeral refers to the plant’s ability to complete its reproductive cycle in a condensed amount of time above ground. Although the plant may only be visible throughoutspring, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s dormant the rest of the year. Actually, for many species, including Erythronium, a period of dormancy in the heat of the summer is followed bygrowth underground that occurs in late autumn and throughout winter. This hypogeous, or underground, growth is slow due to the limited amount of nutrients and water available in the cooler ground.  Due to the length of time that the spring ephemerals are technically growing, these plants essentially have a longer growing period than most of the other deciduous trees, shrubs, and herbs that we may think of in the summer. 

​The early spring forest offers an unprecedented array of color with the seeming re-emergence of life along the forest floor. We are lucky to live in a region of the world that allows the diversity of plant life to be so great thanks to the four seasons we experience each year. As the snow begins to melt, and the sun gets higher in the sky, take an hour or a day, find a quiet place in the forest, a park, or in your backyard, and appreciate all of the changes and beauty that surround you.  The complexities of life in the natural world, including that of the spring ephemerals, will give you a new understanding of the preciousness of the forest, the park, and your backyard.  As you grow to know these areas, you make friends with their inhabitants, and hopefully, learn that as a human, you have a responsibility to look out for and to take care of your friends whether they live next door or under the Oak tree at the park.

Recent Spring Ephemerals observed by Earth Spirit include:

  • Yellow Trout Lily
  • Red Trillium
  • White Trillium
  • Dutchman’s Breeches
  • Blue Cohosh
  • Cut-leafed Toothwort
  • Spring Beauties
  • Hepatica
Spring Ephemerals!

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