Spring’s Earliest Wildflowers


May 5, 2017

Text and photos submitted by Becca Washburn, former Assistant Director, Stowe Land Trust.

There are many reasons to celebrate the arrival of spring in Vermont. The sun has regained its warmth, days are longer, and winter’s sterile nature gives way to the earthy smell emerging from beneath the blanket of snow. Most people happy to be outside in shirtsleeves, can be found puttering in their yards doing their spring cleaning. At my house, however, the rake and gardening tools remain where they were stored last autumn. As early as April, I pack up my wildflower guides and camera and head for south-facing hillsides in search of the season’s first wildflowers.

Spring ephemerals, as their name suggests, are the first splashes of color to appear in contrast with the brown leaf-littered forest floor and are gone before leaves have fully emerged in the tree canopy. They begin to appear in April in warmer regions and on slopes with a lot of southern exposure. Spring ephemerals flower, produce seeds and die back by June completing their above ground life-cycle in about two months.

This unique group of plants is well adapted to flourishing this early in the growing season. The life-cycle of spring ephemerals is timed with the leafing in of the over-story in order to take full advantage of sunlight streaming through to the forest floor and the abundance of nutrients from decomposing leaves and other debris from the previous autumn. Indicative of this time of year, there are few other plant species and fewer pollinators. It is no coincidence that flowers produced by spring ephemerals are striking not simply because of their early appearance. Flowers are unusually showy and often have adapted special features to attract or accommodate pollinators.

One of my favorite spring ephemerals with a unique adaptation to survival this early in the season is Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis). Bloodroot is a white flower with 8 to 12 daisy like petals and a large broad leaf. In order to protect the flower from cold the leaf is wrapped around the blossom to help trap warm air.

A partial list of other plants considered spring ephemerals include, trout lily, columbine, several different colored trillium, jack-in-the-pulpit, spring beauty, foamflower, Canada mayflower and dutchman’s breeches (a relative of the wild bleeding heart).

Take a short detour off the Byway and visit Wiessner Woods to explore the Hardwood Ridge Trail in search of trout lily and trillium. The rich landscape surrounding Joe’s Pond and wetland complex is likely to host several striking species including foamflower, jack-in-the-pulpit and dutchman’s breeches. Please enjoy the flowers in their natural setting, leave them to seed for future wildflower enthusiasts to celebrate.

Whether it is their fleeting appearance or my starved senses that send me wandering in the woods each spring, my yard will have to wait until June. I look forward to seeing you in the woods.