Permanent Camp: Spring Ephemerals

Permanent Camp: Spring Ephemerals
Image of George and Elizabeth Ellison by Quintin Ellison
Image of George and Elizabeth Ellison by Quintin Ellison

Among the early woodland wildflowers is a distinctive group categorized as spring ephemerals. It is one of our most interesting plant groups, one that numbers some of the most showy, renowned, and interesting Blue Ridge wildflowers: trout lily, squirrel corn, Dutchman's breeches, Virginia spring beauty, Carolina spring beauty, cut-leaved toothwort, and wood anemone.

As their name implies, spring ephemerals are of short duration, at least in their above-ground forms. Growing quickly in rich deciduous woodlands, they flower and are pollinated before the trees have expanded their leaf buds overhead. Fruits are ripened and distributed within weeks. Not long after the leaf canopy closes overhead in late spring or very early summer, the ephemerals will have died back almost completely, leaving little or no trace.

The plants in this group have high photosynthetic rates that allow them to rapidly accumulate carbohydrates and complete above-ground growth in a few weeks. Within a short span of time, they generate and store enough reserves to last until the following spring. Ephemerals have obviously adapted so as to take full advantage of the direct sunlight available before energy-yielding light levels drop; then, they become essentially dormant rather than unnecessarily expending energy to maintain foliage.

Trout Lily illustration by Elizabeth Ellison
Trout lilies are well-adapted to life in deciduous woodlands. Like other ephemerals, they emerge in early spring when there is less competition for pollinators and more direct sunlight on the forest floor. Trout lilies have also developed a unique way of reproducing asexually using what’s known as a ‘dropper.’ Illustration by Elizabeth Ellison.

Another strategic advantage the ephemerals gain by flowering very early is that, at that time, they have less competition from other plants for pollinating insects—primarily bumblebees but also various sweat bees, flies, and even butterflies. But spring pollinators are frequently restrained in their search for food by cold, rainy, or cloudy spells.

To guard against an absence of spring pollinators, trout lilies have developed an ingenious backup system whereby they can reproduce asexually via a fleshy bud (dropper) that forms at the end of a fragile white stem (stolon) attached to the base of the parent root. This dropper stem can be as much as ten inches in length. Dense trout lily colonies that form along creek banks or up on mountain slopes are, for the most part, created from droppers rather than seed. Most such plants probably arose from droppers rather than sexually from seeds. Indeed, Missouri Botanical Garden botanist Peter Bernhardt—author of Wily Violets & Underground Orchids: Revelations of a Botanist (1989)—calculated that as many as 90 percent of eastern trout lilies are reproduced asexually.

When you happen upon a trout lily colony, notice that the few plants in bloom will all have two leaves. Botanists disagree as to whether the clones produced by droppers ever develop two leaves and flower or whether only the seed-produced individuals flower. Be that as it may, flowering individuals always have two leaves, and they take a long time (up to eight years in some species) to reach reproductive maturity.

Ephemerals obviously need to be able to store food with great efficiently. Squirrel corn, for instance, has bright yellow nutrient-storage bulbs attached to its root system that resemble corn kernels. You can readily observe them without harming the plant by gently scraping back the leaf litter. Squirrels are reputed to harvest and store these bulbs in food caches; if so, they would, in the process, inadvertently help spread the plant.

Complex adjustments of this sort by a group of flowering plants to the canopy development of an upland deciduous forest—as well as to the needs of its animal residents—no doubt came about over a long period of coexistence. For me, it exemplifies a collective life, of sorts, whereby a community of animals and plants lives in harmony with a particular landscape.

Smokies LIVE

Living on the edge of the Smokies, George and Elizabeth Ellison were named “Blue Ridge Naturalists of the Year” in 2006. George was designated one of the “the 100 most influential people in the history of Great Smoky Mountains National Park” and, since 1987, he has written the Nature Journal column for the Asheville Citizen-Times. Elizabeth’s gallery is at 155 Main Street in Bryson City, North Carolina. Learn more online at

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