Early bloomers

Blooms on Dutchman’s breeches.

Blooms on Dutchman’s breeches.

Once the snow finally melted and the ground had a chance to warm up I had many plants emerging and quite a few blooming. Many early spring bloomers are the bulbs planted in fall (either last fall or many previous falls), such as tulips, snow drops, crocuses and hyacinths. In addition I had a rhododendron, Virginia bluebells, Pasque flowers and Prairie Smoke blooming in the beginning of May. Many of these plants are what are referred to as spring ephemerals.

Ephemerals are plants that emerge quickly and early in spring, then they flower, die back and go dormant after going to seed. Most are wildflowers that are native to forests and they emerge early by taking advantage of the sunlight available before the trees leaf out. The common names of some spring ephemerals are Virginia bluebells, Pasque flower, Dutchman’s breeches, trout lily, marsh marigold, trillium and rue anemone. Because the foliage has usually died out by early summer you can take advantage of the space to plant some annuals; just be sure to mark the space where your ephemeral is planted and try to be careful not to disturb its roots, so that it can come back and bloom again next spring.

Virginia bluebell is one ephemeral I have in my garden. Virginia bluebells are wildflowers that are native to central and southern Minnesota and most states east of the Mississippi. The plant can be found naturally in the woods or will survive in shade to semi-shade conditions in your garden. They like good moisture while blooming but can tolerate drier conditions when they are dormant. An added bonus is that they are deer and rabbit resistant. My Virginia bluebell plant emerged in late April and it bloomed in early May. The plant can grow 12-30” and send out stalks up to 2’ tall. The tubular, pendulant flowers are blue, changing to purple and then pink.  The blooms last about a month during which time the plant can self-seed.

Seed production is dependent on pollination however and the lack of pollinators around in early spring can be a problem. Good pollinators are bumble bees, but as you may know our native rusty patch bumble bee is a threatened species and quickly declining in numbers. Whether pollinated or not the Virginia bluebell flowers and the foliage generally disappear by early June. I keep the spot marked so I can plant carefully around it this summer and I will know where I can expect to see it next spring.

Another spring ephemeral I have is the Pasque flower. It can be found in the northern United States and is the state flower of South Dakota. Pasque flower usually emerges in late March and is done in April. This year everything was about three weeks later due to our late snow melt and cold, wet spring. The small, pale purple, lily-shaped flowers come first, followed by the feathery, dark green, ground-hugging foliage. The flowers disappear early but the foliage can hang around for a while longer – maybe for well into the summer.

Dutchman’s breeches is another popular ephemeral, called such because its pendulant white flowers with yellow tips resemble a pair of Dutch breeches. This ephemeral is hardy in zones 3 to 7 and is another one that likes full to part shade and evenly moist, well-drained soil. The gray green, airy and fern-like basal leaves emerge in early spring and send out multiple stems, each with 5 to 6 blooms in a row.

Many spring ephemerals are available in local garden centers for planting now, but don’t expect any flowers until next spring. In fact if you buy them now they will probably be done flowering and the foliage will likely disappear by early summer. Don’t think they have died, just mark the spot where they are planted and watch for an early pop of life and color in your garden next spring. Enjoy.