Better act fast if you want to see Erythronium umbilicatum blooming in the Triangle.
Gardeners for wildlife and other nature lovers will welcome the sight of Erythronium umbilicatum, more commonly known as Trout lilies. This lily, one of the few true ephemerals in our region, blooms in low, damp areas for a month or less beginning in February. Then they vanish below the soil, patiently awaiting their next appearance the following spring.
Mark Johns, environmental programs supervisor at Cary’s Hemlock Bluffs Park, recently sent a message to his followers, a large group of enthusiastic Cary naturalists. The big news: Trout lilies were blooming at Hemlock Bluffs. Timing is everything for those who want to catch a glimpse of the early spring ephemerals.
“Trout lilies are a classic sign of spring,” Johns says. “When I see those, it’s usually in the first couple weeks of February. It’s still winter and I see flowers, so I find that kind of interesting. As we get into March, the Trout lilies are fading and Spring Beauties are coming in. By the end of March, those are done, too.”
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Johns says the word ephemeral is from the Latin meaning “short-lived” and “brief.” The flowers’ abbreviated life cycle was adapted to fill a specific niche in the ecosystem.
“They come up early when leaves aren’t yet on the trees and the sun can still break through to warm the soil,” Johns says. The warm soil releases nutrients to feed the Trout lilies, which in turn host early-season insects and pollinators, including solitary bees, those species that do not live in colonies.
“It all works together nicely for those guys,” says Johns, referring to both the Trout lilies and Spring Beauties, or Claytonia virginica. They’re next in line to bloom as the Trout lilies fade.
By early April, the brief window of opportunity for spring ephemerals has been closed by the upper-story tree canopy.
“The leaves close off the sunlight, and competition becomes tougher down below for water and for nutrients,” John says.
Flowering Spring Beauties can be spotted throughout the Triangle in late February and March, often near creeks and ponds, occasionally blooming right up to the water’s edge, Johns said. As the Beauties spread, they begin to act as a water filter, trapping the nutrients from fertilizer and other runoff for their own use, thus helping to protect the watershed.
The Raleigh Greenway, as it follows creek beds through the city, is a good option for spring ephemeral spotting, as well as a place to identify many other wetland species. Lake Johnson, Lake Crabtree and other wooded areas with water are other likely options.
Early bloomers to look for, though not necessarily ephemeral plants, include Hepatica, sometimes called Liver Leaf or Liverwort. Despite its name, this member of the buttercup family has lovely white, blue, lavender and occasionally pink blossoms and a delicate scent.
Similarly, Bloodroot, or Sanguinaria canadensis, has a delicate, tall stem with white petals and a yellow center. According to Chicago-based naturalist Carl Strang, who writes a blog titled Nature Inquiries, this plant has evolved to produce seeds with tiny handles that ants love to eat. Once the ants have carried the seeds back to their nest and have eaten the handles, they discard the seed, which eventually sprouts in the new location.
As spring approaches, gardeners should be on the lookout for examples of nature’s finely tuned choreography, such as the ephemeral niche occupied by flowering lilies and the adaptive interplay of many host plants and insects. Late winter to early spring is also a good time to clean out or rebuild bird boxes and consider offering a little suet in the feeder to help birds stay healthy through the last lean days of winter, Johns suggests.
If you just can’t wait to get your hands in the dirt, why not try growing native plants from seed? You can order native seeds from the North Carolina Botanical Garden and find a list of native plant nurseries that sell seeds on the N.C. Native Plant Society website at ncwildflower.org.
The National Wildlife Foundation offers these tips for growing plants from seeds:
▪ Sow seeds in flats or pots at least 5 inches in diameter and 5 inches deep, or create a germination bed some 4 feet wide by 10 feet long.
▪ Fill with a compost-based potting mix and bury seeds about as deep as they are wide, an 1/8 to a 1/4 inch apart. Top with a thin layer of coarse sand or sawdust to keep the seeds tamped down during rain or watering.
▪ Label each container with plant names and planting date.
▪ Place seeds outdoors in the sun if they are sun-loving plants or in shade or partial shade, as indicated.
▪ Keep the soil moist until ready to transplant.