They are here — the spring ephemerals — our native spring wildflowers that pop out of the forest floor, bloom, set fruit, then vanish as the forest canopy leafs out above them.
Judging by the features of my landscape and the natives that were still on it when I moved in, I suspect that most of the really lovely native ephemerals once thrived on my land — trout lilies, hepaticas, spring beauties. Two species persist. Actually, they thrive. Consider the impressive spread of bloodroots in the above photo. That’s just a small subsection of the hill overlooking my creek that they cover annually.
In the 25 years I’ve lived here, I would estimate that my bloodroot population has quadrupled in size, with no help from me, I might add. I’ve always wanted to clean up this boulder-covered slope, remove all the invasive plants, add some additional wildflower species. But, so far, I haven’t managed to do so. Luckily for me, the bloodroots don’t seem to mind that I’ve neglected them. I am treated to their glorious, pure white, many-petaled flowers for a week or two every spring.
Looking up at them from the bottom of the hill this morning, I could easily imagine them as an invading army of fairies, the still unfurled leaves as shields protecting the flower warriors.
And the best news, of course, is that these wildflowers are so poisonous that the deer never even nibble on them. Native Americans used the red roots for dyes and as medicines, but I never touch them without gloved hands. I did move a few of these to my deer-fence-enclosed north slope two years ago. They have adapted well, expanding their numbers. As you can see in the photo below, I actually take care of this group, weeding and mulching the patch every year.
Down on the floodplain, another horde of spring ephemerals rules — mayapples.
While bloodroots occur naturally on rocky, cool slopes, mayapples are inhabitants of wetlands. They welcome intermittent floods, spreading their two-leaved umbrellas in wide swaths in wetlands not overtaken by invasive exotic plant species that outcompete these petite beauties.
The first year we moved to this five-acre patch of piedmont landscape, I spied a large group of mayapples thriving on the other side of the creek that serves as the eastern boundary of our property. No mayapples lived on my land, probably because the previous owner seemed to have treated the floodplain as pasture.
So I liberated a few of these beauties and planted them on the upper reaches of our south-facing active floodplain. They only get submerged during major floods, but the mucky soil remains moist most of the year. I think perhaps they like it there.
I imagine my large patch of miniature umbrellas as a fairy recreation area. It looks ideal for fairy picnics, or perhaps a nice nap beneath the shade of these sturdy leaves. Eventually, a single white flower will appear in the notch between the two leaves. But not just yet.
The single flowers produce a little green fruit that someone decided looked apple-like. I’ve read that one can make a tart jam from the fruits, and that they are a favorite meal of turtles. But this is the only part of a mayapple that is not poisonous. Like the bloodroots on the hill, mayapples multiply unimpeded because the deer do not eat them. One year sometime back, a deer did eat about half of my patch. I always wondered if it staggered off somewhere and died, because no one came back to finish the rest, and they haven’t been nibbled on since.
Both bloodroots and mayapples are good reminders that beauty can be deadly. By all means, seek out and admire these spring ephemeral wildflowers during their brief moments in the sun. But don’t touch, and never nibble. They thrive because these hordes are well-armed indeed.
This is a note to my fellow southeastern piedmont dwellers. If you feed the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, please put out your feeders now. As my Red Buckeye demonstrates above, the native flowers the early-arriving males depend on are two weeks behind schedule. Nevertheless, the hummingbirds are arriving at their usual time — now! Until the flowers catch up, these winged jewels of our summer skies need our help. Thanks!