One day about twenty years ago when I was a new Master Gardener, I plucked an entire small plant from my wooded front yard and took it to the office for identification. The plant consisted of a few grasslike leaves no more than two inches long, with a single five-petaled pinkish white flower.
The first MG I asked chided me for not bringing a larger sample. “But this is the whole plant!” I replied, “except for the roots.” Then another MG took a look and said “ooh! spring beauty! it’s one of the ephemerals.”
I’ve been in love with the concept ever since.
Forbs are herbaceous plants other than grasses; their growth is usually described as either annual or perennial. An annual grows roots, stem, and leaves from seed, then flowers and goes to seed all in one season, and dies. A perennial does the same, but the roots survive to allow the plant to grow again the next season. Some plants have a two year life cycle, producing flowers and seeds in the second year before dying; they’re called biennials.
There are some variations to this theme. Plants that grow and bloom through the winter and early spring are called winter annuals. Or hibernals, if they’re perennial.
Ephemeral describes plants with a very short life cycle. They are usually perennials that grow and bloom for about a month, or maybe two, but not the whole season. Here in the east we have spring ephemerals, woodland plants that take advantage of the sunlight coming through the leafless tree canopy. By the time the trees leaf out, most of these forbs are done and gone ’til the following spring.
Most of our early spring bloomers are ephemerals: Dutchman’s breeches and squirrel corn, trout lily and white trout lily, Virginia bluebells, harbinger-of-spring, cut-leaf and slender toothworts, rue anemone.
Although the foliage lasts a month or so, twinleaf flowers last only a few days. And all the plants bloom at the same time, so even if there are hundreds of plants in a stand, you have five days at most to see them flowering.
We also have mudflat ephemerals, plants that wait until summertime, when rivers run low, then grow from the resulting mud. I wasn’t able to find any official list of these, but I’ve seen this growth habit in the Potomac gorge. So as an educated guess, I’ll suggest the following as possible mudflat ephemerals: Lindernia dubia (false pimpernel), Phyla lanceolate (fogfruit), Teucrium canadense (American germander), and Eclipta prostrata (false daisy).
Out West there are desert ephemerals, that pop up and bloom only when the right conditions are met. Most of those plants are annuals.
Just like springtime itself, the ephemeral flower show doesn’t last long enough. Perhaps that’s why we love it so: like the Japanese with their cherry blossoms, we treasure the things that don’t stay with us for long.