The Life and Times of Spring Ephemerals

Our native spring ephemerals live such fascinating lives. Our awareness of their presence is so fleeting -- many of them will flower, go to seed, and die back all in a matter of a couple weeks -- yet many of them are long-lived and have complex ecological relationships. Certainly these small wonders are worth a closer look.

Micranthes virginiensis or early small-flowered saxifrage, is one of the earliest flowering spring ephemerals, though you’re not likely to notice it. It’s basal rosette persists all year long, turning a dark red in the winter and greening back up as the weather warms up. It begins forming buds in the fall, which over winter and open up early in the spring, still low to the ground nestled in the basal rosette, relatively protected from late frosts. Click on the photos for higher resolution versions.

In this photo at the nursery, you can see the flowers just beginning to open. In the wild, it may still be covered by leaf litter, or even snow.

Within a matter of days, the peduncle will rocket upwards to six or more inches, creating a tall broad panicle of flowers.

This is the same plant as above, taken just 4 days later.

This saxifrage favors rocky soils, and often are found growing in crevices, outcroppings, or other nooks and crannies in moist to dry forests across northern Virginia.

A close up of freshly opened flowers. Notice that not all the anthers have begun to form pollen.

Supposedly, the tall, densely hairy stems are meant to discourage ants from visiting flowers, in favor of flies and bees which pollinate more efficiently. (1)

Speaking of ants, we can see here an ant visiting visiting a Cardamine concatenata or cutleaf toothwort. Toothwort also has a hairy stem, though in this case it did nothing to deter the presence of the ants, if in fact that is what the plant “intended.”

This was just one of about a dozen ants visiting this cutleaf toothwort. Notice how the ant isn’t carrying much, if any, pollen on its body.

I watched a small group of ants climb across these flowers for a few minutes, wandering up and down the stems, and across the various structures of the flower. I noticed two interesting features: the ants were definitely eating the pollen, grazing on each anther and then eventually walking down the stem to, presumably, return to their colony. And despite walking all over pollen-laden flowers, they appeared remarkably clean, unlike a bee which would have been covered with pollen. My hunch is that these ants were doing little to pollinate this flower and were instead looking for an easy lunch.

With their reproductive cycle happening so early in the year, when there is a relative paucity of active pollinators, spring ephemerals have had to adapt. Erythronium americanum or yellow trout lily is a great example. For starters, look at the sheer amount of pollen this guy produces.

A yellow trout lily in full bloom. Notice the reddish-brown pollent.

Each tiny reddish-brown dot is a pollen grain.There must be tens of thousands on just this one flower. Scroll back up to the other photos and compare (the other flowers produce yellow pollen); trout lily simply has them beat when it comes to sheer amount of pollen per flower. If we look inside the flower, you can see how it gets everywhere.