The earliest ephemerals are out and blooming a few hundred miles away, in South Carolina, but it’ll be a few more weeks before they start blooming here in the mid-Atlantic. Here’s a sneak preview of what’s to come, presented more or less in the order in which they bloom. All of these should be blooming by the end of March at the latest.

Erigenia bulbosa (harbinger-of-spring, pepper and salt; Apiaceae)

One of the first up, sometimes as early as late February. Look for it in moist woods but you have to be eagle-eyed to spot it (note the dime sitting there for scale). Just as I was finishing this post, a friend reported seeing harbinger blooming here in the Maryland Piedmont today!

Anemone americana (round-lobe hepatica; Ranunculaceae)

A hibernal plant; the leaves usually wither away by the time the flowers bloom, or soon after. If you see the leaves now, note the location and check back in a few weeks for the flowers.



Lindera benzoin (spicebush; Lauraceae)

Don’t forget to look up once in awhile! This very common understory shrub is one of the first plants to bloom in our area.


Arabidopsis lyrata (lyre-leaved rockcress; Brassicaceae)

This plant has a long bloom period, often starting early in the season. Look for it growing right on large rocks, as the common name suggests. The sight of a mass of these delicate blossoms dancing in even the slightest breeze fills me with joy.

Cardamine concatenata (cut-leaf toothwort; Brassicaceae)

Such a dainty thing.




Corydalis flavula (short-spurred corydalis and many other common names; Papaveraceae)

Another petite flower, easy to miss. You have to get very close to see all the ornate details.


Micranthes virginiensis (early saxifrage; Saxifragaceae)

This fine specimen is one of the largest I’ve seen. I usually find them in rocky places.


Dicentra canadensis (squirrel corn; Papaveraceae)

The delicate, lacy, ferny foliage is almost identical to that of Dutchman’s breeches; you have to see the plants flowering to tell them apart with confidence.


Dicentra cucullaria (Dutchman’s breeches; Papaveraceae)

From my limited observation, this species is usually waning when squirrel corn is just getting started. There’s a hillside on the Cabin John Trail that’s covered in these plants.

Next time, more teasers.


After all the research into the borage and waterleaf families I was looking forward to writing a short little something about this odd yet charming spring ephemeral. Then I went to verify a few facts and saw references to both the fumitory family (Fumariaceae) and the poppy family (Papaveraceae).

Oh, no. Not again.

Short version: pretty much the same thing happened with these two families as with the other two. The interesting thing, to me, is that fumitory-type flowers look absolutely nothing like poppy-type flowers, while the borage and waterleaf flowers (eg Phacelia and Cryptantha species) look an awful lot alike. But then, classification is based on phylogeny, not morphology.

At any rate, flowers previously placed in the fumitory family do have similar features, namely two very small sepals and four petals in two pairs, the outer pair being somewhat squashed and spread-out looking. The symmetry is either bilateral (one plane of symmetry) or disymmetric, meaning there are two planes of symmetry, perpendicular to each other.

Other flowers in the Papaveraceae look like, well, poppies, with radial symmetry.

Back to squirrel corn. In Maryland it’s found in a few parts of the Piedmont and all the physiographic provinces to the west. It’s close relative Dutchman’s breeches is more widespread, in most of the state except parts of the Coastal Plain. A third species, D. eximina, is found in Prince George’s, Montgomery, Allegany, and Garret counties, and is listed S2/threatened. I haven’t seen it yet, but I really want to, because it, too, has funny common names: turkey corn and wild bleeding heart.

Other fumitory-type flowers found in Maryland include one species of Adlumia, three types of corydalis, and one (alien) species of Fumaria. The popular garden ornamental bleeding hearts (formerly Dicentra spectabilis, currently Lamprocapnos spectabilis) is native to Asia.

Dutchman’s breeches with green foliage

A large patch of the forest floor near the white trout lilies is carpeted in the finely dissected foliage of squirrel corn and Dutchman’s breeches. I’ve noticed that the latter species has a consistent medium green color, while the former is somewhat bluish (glaucous). But less than a mile away, near Plummer’s Island, there’s a stand of the two Dicentra species growing together where the foliage is indistinguishable. I’ve heard that other native plant enthusiasts have observed the same thing, and that some have observed the opposite. Not sure what to make of that, except that it isn’t a reliable way to distinguish the two species. You have to see the flowers. (Or the corms, but I don’t advocate digging up plants growing in public lands.)

squirrel corn with glaucous foliage

Dutchman’s breeches seems to bloom about a week or so before squirrel corn, at least in the Potomac Gorge. It’s close to done now, but squirrel corn should still be blooming.

A note about common names

Timothy Coffey in his well-researched The History and Folklore of North American Wildflowers (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994) gives common names for about 700 species of plants. Many of these names are probably historical and no longer used, but if you’re interested in such things it’s a fun resource. The following list is from the book.

Dicentra canadensis: colicweed, ghost-corn, Indian-potatoes, ladies-and-gentlemen, lyre-flower, stagger-weed, turkey-corn, turkey-pea, white-hearts, wild-hyacinth

Dicentra cucullaria: bachelor’s-breeches, boys-and-girls, breeches-flower, butterfly-banners, colicweed, dicentre à capuchon, eardrops, flyflower, girls-and-boys, Indian boys-and-girls, kitten-breeches, leather-breeches, little-blue-stagger, little-boy’s-breeches, monkshood, pearl-harlequin, soldier’s-cap, stagger-weed, turkey, white-eardrop, white-hearts.

I know one woman who calls D. cucullaria Dutchman’s-britches.

Variations on a Theme: Dicentras


Dicentra cucullaria
Dutchman’s breeches or britches






Dicentra canadensis




Both of these low-growing spring ephemerals can be found in rich, moist woodlands. Both have finely cut blue-green foliage, but as you can see from the pictures the leaflet lobes of Dutchman’s breeches are a little rounder and closer together, while those of squirrel-corn are more linear and open. The flower shapes are also slightly different, the former having two pointed lobes at the top, the latter having two rounded lobes.

These two plants are placed in the Fumariaceae (fumewort family) by some authorities.  Other authorities consider this group a sub-family (Fumarioideae) of the Papaveraceae (poppy family).

There are seven native species of Dicentra; three can be found on west coast and three on the east coast, while Dutchman’s breeches can be found on both (but not in the mountain states or desert southwest). Squirrel-corn is threatened in Connecticut, Maine, and New Hampshire and endangered in New Jersey.

Of the three east coast species, the third, called wild bleeding heart or turkey-corn, is threatened in Maryland.  I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing it in the wild.