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Spring Ephemerals are Early-blooming Woodland Plants

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WHITE RIVER JUNCTION – Spring ephemeral wildflowers are perennial woodland plants that sprout from the ground in early spring, bloom quickly, and seed before the canopy trees fully leaf out. Once the forest floor is deep in shade, the leaves wither away, leaving just the roots, rhizomes, and bulbs underground. This pattern allows the plants to take advantage of the full sunlight reaching the forest floor during early spring.

Trout Lily, Dogtooth Violet (Erythronium Americanum)

Many of these plants rely on myrmecochory: seed dispersal by ants. The seeds of spring ephemerals bear fatty external appendages called elaiosomes. Ants harvest and carry them back to their nests and eat them. The unharmed seeds are thrown into the trash bin and eventually germinate. A single ant colony may collect as many as a thousand seeds over a season. Unlike seeds dispersed by birds or wind, a seed is only carried about two meters on average from the parent plant. With such short-distance dispersal, forest fragmentation threatens the survival of spring ephemerals. Once these plants are gone from the forest, they rarely return.

Long-term flowering records initiated by Henry David Thoreau in 1852 have been used in Massachusetts to monitor phenological changes. Phenology, the study of the timing of natural events such as migration, flowering, leaf out, or breeding, is key to examining and unraveling climate change’s effects on ecosystems. In recent years, record-breaking spring temperatures have resulted in the earliest flowering times in recorded history for dozens of spring-flowering plants in the eastern United States.

Trailing Arbutus (Ericaceae, Heath Family)
Trailing Arbutus (Ericaceae, Heath Family)

You can also add new observations to the record books using iNaturalist! Were he alive today, Henry David Thoreau might be surprised by how many of us are watching and recording flower phenology.

Popular spring wildflowers include Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum), Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris), Spring Beauty (Claytonia caroliniana), Red Trillium (Trillium erectum), Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum), Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis) and Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum)

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

To help make iNaturalist (inaturalist.org) wildflower observations more valuable, annotate plant records with their flowering status. Visit a species account, like Bloodroot, for example. After learning more about the plant on the page, click the little gear icon and select “Add Annotations for Plant Phenology.”

Scrutinize the image(s) and see if any plants are budding, flowering, or fruiting. If you see any, select one of those for Plant Phenology. If there is more than one stage on a single plant, another Plant Phenology will appear, and you can choose another stage for the same observation. What if it’s bare? If there are no flowers, fruits, or buds, type “Flower Phenology” in the Observations Field and select it from the list. Then add “bare” and click “Add”.

Every annotation will help us better understand how climate change is affecting spring ephemerals in Vermont. Happy flower hunting and annotating!

Kent McFarland is a conservation biologist at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies in White River Junction.

Kent McFarland

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