Spring ephemerals are energy-efficient perennials that take full advantage of resources when they are available. Sunlight reaching through leafless trees warms their soil, and moisture from melting snow and early spring rains awakens them.
Their foliage grows and their flowers bloom and set seed before the leaves of trees expand and steal their light. As the sunlight fades, spring ephemerals accept their fate, reserve nutrients they have stored, and simply go dormant, disappearing entirely from the garden.
There are many spring ephemerals – bloodroot, dogtooth violets, Celadine poppies, Dutchman’s breeches, mayapples and shooting stars to name a few, but bleeding hearts, trillium and Virginia bluebells add the most drama to my gardens.
Old-fashioned bleeding hearts (Dicentra spectabilis) will show off puffy, heart-shaped flowers with white-tipped, rose-pink petals that dangle in rows from graceful, arching stems. In spring, bleeding hearts form large bushy clumps of fresh green foliage. Cut back foliage to 6 inches after flowering to encourage new growth. This, along with supplemental watering, may delay dormancy for a month or more.
The epitome of American wildflowers, there are many varieties of trilliums that add simple elegance to gardens. They grow anywhere from 6 to 18 inches and prefer cool, moist soil. Purple trillium (T. erectum) has dark reddish-purple flowers. White trillium (T. grandiflorum) boasts very large, snow-white flowers. Trillium recurvatum, sometimes referred to as prairie trillium, has purple-brown flowers and speckled green foliage. Toad Trillium (T. sessile) may have purplish-maroon or greenish-yellow flowers over mottled leaves. Yellow wood trillium (T. viride luteum) sports yellow flowers that stand upright over splotched foliage.
Botanically named Mertensia virginica, Virginia bluebells grow 12 to 24 inches tall. Their pink buds open to blue bell-shaped flowers. They self-sow into large groupings where their color is soft and soothing but show stopping.
As much as the color of spring ephemerals is appreciated, it is necessary to plan for their dormancy to avoid “holes” in the garden. Good companions for them include hostas, lady’s mantle and anemones. These large-leaved perennials cover the space left behind when spring ephemerals make their exit.
• Diana Stoll is a University of Illinois Extension Kane County master gardener. Email the extension office at email@example.com for more information.