The transitory glory of an Ontario spring

Spring ephemerals offer a magical display of wildlfowers that are with us for a few weeks, springing out of the moist leaf litter to enjoy the longer days of sunshine while the trees are bare, only to disappear when the closing canopy brings shade to the northern woodland floor.

Come summer, no trace is left of these perennials: the foliage dies back and the plant goes dormant. Because they have such a brief time to gather nutrients, removing flowers and especially leaves from these plants can kill them. Enjoy the beauty but restrain your urge to possess it. 

It’s an Ontario tradition to get out to see the Trilliums that carpet our deciduous woods in white. The magnificent Large-flowered Trillium (T. grandiflorum) – our provincial wildflower - is the most common but we also have Nodding Trillium (T. cernuum), Red Trilllium (T. erectum), Yellow Trillium (T. luteum) and Painted Trillium (T. undulatum). Seed is dispersed by ants.

There are many more delightful ephemerals to gladden the heart of a woodland visitor. First, the low-growing:

-Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum), named for the mottled pattern on the leaves that resembles a brook trout in water. The yellow flower bends its face to the earth, you have to kneel to get a good view of the nicely contrasting red anthers.

-Shooting Star (Dodecatheon medea) gets its name from its streamlined look of white recessed petals and forward-thrusting stamens. The flowers are borne on stems rising from a central rosette.

-Liverwort is a charming plant that comes in two varieties: Sharp-lobed (Hepatica nobilis acuta) or Round-lobed (Hepatica nobilis obtusa). The difference is in the shape of the pleasing tri-lobed leaves (a shape that gives this plant its common name). The flowers, which get a starry look from pronounced stamens, can be white, pink or blue.

I interrupt this blog at 8:15 a.m. on Mother’s Day to bring you the news that it is snowing. It stopped, and the snow melted, in the time it took to ascertain the temperature (4 Celsius, down about 20 degrees from the high a few days ago).  

Taller – up to a foot:

-Jack in the Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), a fascinating plant with a striped hood (the spathe) that furls around and over a spike (the spadix) that is covered with tiny flowers.

-Bloodroot (Sanguinara canadensis), in my garden anyway, was at its very best on May Day – a thick carpet of white anemone-like flowers with golden stamens. The petals started dropping the next day. The roots contain a blood-red juice, which is poisonous to humans. Seed is dispersed by ants.

-Wild Bleeding Heart (Dicentra canadensis) has delicate blue-grey fern-like foliage and white heart-shaped flowers. It’s also called squirrel corn, because it forms kernel-sized underground tubers.

-Wild Leek (Allium tricoccum) grows in large patches of smooth light green leaves. The flower appears mostly after the leaves, which are edible, have died back. If you harvest from the wild, take no more than 20 per cent of any clump, and cut only the leaves, don't pull out the full plant with its bulb.

Tallest – one to two feet:

-Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica) have rounded, soft green leaves and wonderful clusters of blue bells. In my garden they have started to spread out by self-seeding - they are welcome anywhere they choose.

-Large-flowered Bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora) grows in clumps, with beautiful yellow bell-shaped flowers, each hanging from a single stem. Seed is dispersed by ants (now you know what ants are good for).

I interrupt this blog to report that an Indigo Bunting has appeared at the feeder. A perfect blue, a complement to the Virginia Bluebells. 

Not strictly spring ephemerals, because they hang around to produce berries, these are plants that flower at the same time in the same shady conditions:

-Great Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum) have arching stems from which hand a row of white bells which turn in to a row of blue berries. Very architectural.

-False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum racemosum) looks a little like the true Solomon’s Seal (see below) but grows only up to a foot, as opposed to two feet tall and has more of a zig-zag to its stem. The flowers are a starry cluster at the end of the stem.

-Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) shows up at first as a stalk that is so blue it takes your breath away. When it leafs out, the divided green leaves resemble those of Meadowrue (Latin name, Thalictrum, hence the name given to this plant) and the small yellow-green flowers are inconspicuous. Blue berries appear in September – they are poisonous to humans. This is not from the same family as Black Cohosh (Actea racemosa, also called Cimicifuga racemosa), a better-known Eastern North American native that is a popular garden plant.

-Canada Mayflower (Maianthemum canadense), also know as False Lily of the Valley, is a low-growing plant that comes up as a single shiny leaf. Then it develops a couple more leaves and produces clusters of small white flowers. There are red berries in fall.

Later: bursts of snow have occurred all through the day and just now (3:10) there was a whiteout. It's over now (3:12). Such is spring.
Jon Harries Devon UK
- 12 May 2013 at 12:02pm

You may have the snow, even so late in the year. We just have dull, damp, cool and an alarming lack of any real warmth. But anyway, I am enjoying reading this description of the Ontario spring. Good wishes to all.
Kate Harries
- 12 May 2013 at 12:25pm

Hi Jon - we just came off a heatwave, so the snow was a bit of a shocker. I hope things warm up for you over there soon.
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