The Dirt on Native Bulbs: Spring Ephemerals That We Love
Before there was urban sprawl, suburbia, and triple-lane highways, there were lots of woodlands and meadows— home to a wide variety of native bulbs.
In early spring, before the big deciduous trees would leaf-out, lovely tiny flowers would blanket huge areas beneath the bare trees. Taking advantage of the sunshine and longer days, these bulbs had a small window of time in which to grow, flower, be pollinated, and produce seeds. By summer, most of the bulbs would be dormant. Thus, they are called spring ephemerals– here for a brief time, then gone.
We don’t get to see a lot of native ephemerals in the wild anymore, which may account for their growing popularity at native plant gardens, their protected status in woodland preserves, and new commercial trends towards more native plant nurseries. Still, if you take a walk through the woods in the next few weeks, you just might be surprised.
Starting with the earliest blooming bulbs, here are several of our most beloved natives to look out for, along with a description of their currently-fashionable features.
Early Spring Blooms: Tiny But Terrific
Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica)
This first-to-bloom ephemeral is, strictly speaking, not a true bulb, but rather a “corm”. According to bulb expert John Bryan, both corms and true bulbs are bulbous plants, also known as “geophytes”– plants that store their food in amazing ways underground, often in swollen stems or other organs. With spring beauties, the underground corm is edible, like a tiny potato.
The plant is named in honor of John Clayton (1686-1773), an American botanist. Early settlers and Native Americans often used the roots for food.
Spring beauty has five delicate, pink-veined petals and a tiny dark stem. It grows to only about six inches, just tall enough for a tiny bee called Andrena erigeniae to be its exclusive pollinator. (More about these pollinators later.)
Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum)
Trout lily– also called colorful names like Adder’s Tongue and Amber bell– is a true bulb that produces narrow spotted brown and purple leaves that look like the shape of a brook trout. Next, miraculously, a tiny lily rises up– so sweet. With a single, nodding, golden-yellow, bell-shaped flower and a stem about four to five inches tall, this lily is truly splendid.
Large colonies of trout lilies can be over 100 years old, often older than the surrounding trees. They can spread pretty quickly and have their own special pollinator, the trout lily bee (Andrena erythronii).
There’s a white-flowered native version of the trout lily that is commonly called a White Dog-Tooth Violet or– to confuse things further– a Spring Lily (Erythronium albidum). It has light green, spotted leaves and a white bulb that actually looks like a dog’s tooth.
Other native lily varieties can be much larger; for example, there’s a very showy West Coast native commonly called Pink Fawn Lily (Erythronium revolutum), with twelve inch stems, 3-5 flowers per stem, and amazing leaves. Its cultivars can also have very unusual colors.
For even bigger, taller yellow flowers, there are some amazing hybrids cultivated from the native Erythronium tuolumnense. One of these cultivars is ‘Kondo,’ which can rise to fourteen inches; another popular, pale-yellow cultivar is called ‘Pagoda.’
Landscape historian Marta McDowell, who teaches bulb classes at the New York Botanical Garden, says that the tall, native lily cultivars can be good, vigorous alternatives to daffodils. The lilies have multiple blooms per stem and can be interplanted with forget-me-nots, hellebores, and anemones. McDowell recommends checking out the Pacific Bulb Society, which identifies and provides pictures of more than a dozen hybrid and native Erythronium species.
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)
This woodland plant loves to grow in the rich soil under deciduous trees. It rises six to ten inches and spreads over time to form large masses from its deep red rhizomatous roots, which actually are swollen underground stems. Rhizomes are another type of geophyte, along with corms, true bulbs, and tubers.
Each flower stalk typically emerges in spring sheathed in a grayish-green leaf. A pure white flower blooms as the leaf unfurls, producing a single, two-inch wide multi-petaled flower with prominent yellow stamens in the center.
Sadly, the flowers only last for a day or two– opening in the sun and closing at night. But the thick leaves can continue to grow and increase in size until late summer.
Why is it called Bloodroot? The answer is that when any part of the plant is cut, it drips a bright reddish-orange sap. Settlers and Native Americans once used the sap as a dye, while the roots have been used therapeutically as an expectorant, a stimulant, and an emetic.
White trillium (Trillium grandiflorum)
This gorgeous rhizomatous bulb loves to carpet the forest floor– especially under beech, oak and maple trees– but it is very slow-growing. Awesome white blossoms rise up on single stems with three white petals that alternate with three green sepals.
We owe these and other native blooms to the hard work of certain ants who disperse the seeds of spring ephemerals. The seeds of spring ephemerals bear fatty food rewards called elaiosomes. The ants, attracted to the elaiosomes, carry the seeds a short distance away from the plant to their nests, where the food is eaten by their larvae, but the seeds remain. They are just discarded nearby where they can germinate. A single ant colony can reportedly disperse hundreds of seeds over a season.
Other Trilliums include: Yellow trillium (Trillium luteum)– a southeastern US variety that is fragrant; and Toadshade (Trillium sessile)– its flowers are maroon-brown and closed up, with a fragrance described as sort of moldy, but maybe not to a toad!
As with all rhizomatous bulbs, experts recommend purchasing them damp-packed and planting the rhizomes right away, before they dry out.
Mid-to-Late Spring: Old-Fashioned Favorites
Bleeding hearts (Dicentra)
A wonderful choice for woodland areas or shady borders, native bleeding heart foliage often will emerge when daffodils are still in bloom. Bright reddish-pink colored, heart-shaped flowers will soon follow, hanging above the tulips in late spring on graceful, arching stems.
For devotees, there also is Fringed or Wild Bleeding Heart (Dicentra eximia), which grows easily in part shade and actually can last through summer! This native reaches up to eighteen inches and has its largest bloom in late spring but will bloom again in the fall when the weather cools. It does not go dormant in the summer.
Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)
Funny-shaped, fragrant creamy white flowers, often described as pantaloons, hang in a row on a naked, central stalk of this native species. The “breeches” hover above fern-like grey-green foliage that grows in dense, mounded masses up to ten inches high. By June, the plant has utterly disappeared. But while it lasts, many say it’s their all-time favorite woodland native.
The reproductive fate of Dutchman’s breeches depends upon bumblebee queens (Bombusspecies), who feed their larvae the nectar and pollen produced by these and other native ephemerals when other early-spring food sources are scarce. The young bees emerge as workers that pollinate other plants later in the season.
Another Dicentra variety is Squirrel corn (Dicentra canadensis). It’s often found in the same habitats. But it has heart-shaped flowers. The root tuber looks like a corn kernel, hence its common name. The plant goes dormant in early summer.
Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica)
If you wander in woodland areas alongside creeks with flood plains, you may encounter colonies of Virginia bluebells. The soft hanging flowers first open with a trumpet-shaped pink bud that turns into an enchantingly beautiful blue color. When the plants grow in masses, the color and shapes create a truly awesome spectacle– well worth a visit to any site where they are displayed.
The bluebells stand about one to two feet tall with a smooth, oval gray-green foliage lining the stems. At Bowman’s Wildflower Preserve in New Hope, Pennsylvania, the bluebells blanket the forest area that is a flood plain.
When they are left undisturbed they thrive in a moist, shady woodland garden. The plants go dormant in summer so they need to be over-planted with annuals or interplanted with perennials, such as ferns or hostas, which will expand during the summer growing season.
Late Spring/Early Summer Blooms
Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum)
Jack-in-the-pulpit is a good plant for a cool, damp, shady spot. It is relatively easy to grow, is low maintenance, and in late summer it hangs around, providing bright red berries on its very tall stems, which birds and other animals eat.
The glossy green leaves come up on their own stems, after which a large cylindrical, hooded flower, on a separate stalk, blooms at the same height—about one to three feet. It almost looks a little tropical
The hooded flower is the “pulpit” that wraps around the “Jack,” a spike that contains tiny greenish purple flowers. The outside of the pulpit (structurally known as the ‘spathe’) is usually green or purple and the inside is usually striped purple and greenish white, but sometimes not.
Native Americans used the corms of the plant as a vegetable but they have to be cooked– the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center provides this recipe:
“Dry for at least six months before eating. Peel, cut into small pieces, roast in the oven for at least one hour and grind into a flour or coffee grinder until quite fine. Add the ground root to bread doughs or muffin batters. Thin slices of the root, dried for 3 months, can be eaten as snacks or with potato-chip dip.”
Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum)
The Mayapple also hangs around longer than most ephemerals, with its apple-blossom like flower blooming later in May. First, it has just two umbrella type leaves that are wide and very identifiable. By the time the plant is a foot tall, or so, the twin leaves can be as wide as six to eight inches across. Only one flower grows and is hidden in the crotch of the twin leaves– a downward-facing white blossom with waxy, showy petals and many stamens.
Each flower produces a Mayapple — a berry shaped like a lemon. The leaves, roots, and seeds from the fruit are poisonous if eaten in large quantities, but Native Americans used the roots as a cathartic and the berries can be used to make jellies and preserves.
If You Plant Native Bulbs…
The most basic rule: Do not dig plants up in the wild. Get them from a reputable nursery where they are “nursery propagated,” not “nursery grown.” Another important rule: try plants that are native to your own area, they will do better.
Luckily there are several specialized commercial nurseries in different regions of the U.S. that propagate native bulbs and provide growing instructions, too. They include: Amanda’s Native Perennial Garden, ArcheWild Native Nurseries, Bay Natives, Catskill Native Nursery, Edge of the Woods Plant Nursery, Plant Delights, Prairie Nursery, Toadshade Wildflower Farm— to name just a few.
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