Sue Langley

Preserving your Spring ephemerals

by sue langley

Elegant Brodiaea, Brodiaea elegans, with Helichrysum, ‘Icicles.’
Elegant Brodiaea, Brodiaea elegans, with Helichrysum, ‘Icicles.’ Submitted Photo

“My idea of gardening is to discover something wild in my wood and weed around it with the utmost care until it has a chance to grow and spread.” – Margaret Bourke-White

Covered with the greenest and freshest grass, the open woodland is where the earliest wildflowers of Spring spread their wealth of ephemeral loveliness. The leaves of California native ephemerals are already appearing in early Spring in the Sierra foothills, like welcome friends, rarely seen.

Good morning, sunshine! ‘Spring ephemeral’ describes the life cycle of our perennial woodland wildflowers which develop stems, leaves, and flowers early each Spring and then quickly bloom, go to seed and die back to roots, or bulbs for the rest of the year. This scheme is very common in deciduous forests like ours as it allows small plants to take advantage of the high amount of sunlight reaching the forest floor prior to the leafing out of taller plants.

You will find these short-lived beauties in open ground and under deciduous trees and shrubs. They survive by taking advantage of the Spring sunshine, blooming, and ultimately completing their month, or two month, appearance before the woodland trees cast shade and while water is still available.

Developing in late winter, the thin round stems of Pretty Face, Triteleia ixioides, and Brodiaea, Brodiaea elegans, are 5 inches tall already, and have been covered with snow after snow in the winter chill. These precious perennials bloom together, hovering eight inches above the ground with an airy layer of deep blue and soft yellow.

Triggered by the warming soil, they rapidly send up foliage, blossom, set seed and then disappear in six to eight weeks — all before summer starts. These two, Pretty Face and Brodiaea naturalize easily if the bulbs and roots are undisturbed and not choked with weeds. Allowing the natural leaf litter to remain in your small ‘nature preserves’ will discourage weeds.

Here, then gone. The word, ephemeral, derives from the Greek ephemerios, ‘lasting one day’. In many cases, in late Spring or early summer, these tiny plants ‘disappear’ because no top growth is visible. Protect these areas by marking them out with a stone edge or border. That will remind you to keep this area weed free, which will double your bloom in coming years. Another way to keep track of where spring ephemerals are growing in your garden is to combine them with low growing companion plants, which act as markers and then provide a colorful transition to summer.

Two favorites hide themselves in my garden, waiting to be discovered. Rose globe lilies with their pendulous pink blooms and Shooting stars with swept-back, seemingly wind-blown flowers pointed with dark tips, are rare and therefore treasured. You’ll hear local neighbors compete, pridefully pointing out the earliest Shooting stars in their gardens.

Other ephemerals commonly seen in your woodland garden are Blue Dicks, California Golden Violet, Elegant Brodiaea, Mariposa Lily, Miner’s lettuce, Miniature lupine and Owl’s Clover.

Some companion ‘marker’ plants are Golden Oregano, Helichrysum, Sedums and stonecrop, Sweet Violet, Teucrium (Germander), Thyme and Western Columbine. Any low, airy plant will allow these diminutive plants to thrive.

Next time you take a walk around your garden, watch for signs of these tiny jewels and determine to protect and multiply them for next year. It’s simple to do! This sudden flash of ephemeral beauty we experience and treasure each year is but a promise of warmer Spring weather to come. Each ‘one’ day will bring more blooms and new discoveries.

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