Spring ephemerals are the first wildflowers that bloom in spring on the forest floor, before the tree canopy has even begun to emerge. “Ephemeral” means lasting for a short time and is aptly applied to these special spring wildflowers, for they disappear (i.e. complete their life cycle) once the tree canopy begins to provide shade and the temperatures warm. Since these perennial wildflowers are so short-lived, it is a really special experience to witness any of them blooming!
Trilium, Bloodroot, Trout Lily, Dutchman’s Breeches, Cutleaf Toothwort, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, and many more are spring ephemerals to be on the hunt for. Many of these wildflowers are quite small and delicate in appearance. They take advantage of what light they can get, lasting only a few weeks, and attract whatever pollinators are on hand.
One of my personal favorite spring ephemerals is Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis). Named for its blood-colored sap in its roots, you can actually use the roots’ sap to create a natural dye. The actual bloom of the Bloodroot is one of the most short-lived of any spring ephemeral. You can catch one blooming and the next day it could be gone, especially if there is a spring rain! It always feels so special to me to see a patch of Bloodroot blooming. I also think the unfurling of the bloom is just as beautiful.
Another fun flower to look for is the Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum). While the Mayapple is named for the appearance of its fruit (which looks like a small yellow apple when ripe), I think the white flower with a yellow center is so neat. I like this flower because it can be so hidden among the giant Mayapple umbrella-like leaves that you can definitely miss it!
Note that when you are hunting for Mayapple flowers, the flowers only appear on plants with two leaves. The Mayapple plants with only one leaf will not have a flower. Mayapples appear in deciduous forests in dense colonies, and while most will be sinlge-leaved, non-blooming plants, you should definitely be able to find some with double-leaves in the mix.
Some have claimed Mayapples are a natural indicator of the presence of morel mushrooms, so be sure to hunt for some if you’re seeing Mayapples around.
A few of the spring ephemerals have look-alikes so be aware while you are on the hunt.
Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) and Squirrel corn (Dicentra canadensis) are closely related and the flowers and foliage both can look similar. Note the top shape of the spurs of each flower to tell the difference. Dutchman’s breeches are spread out while the Squirrel corn spurs are close and rounded.
Dutchman’s Breeches is on the left; Squirrel Corn is on the right
We also hunt for Rue Anemone (Thalictrum thalictoides) and False Rue Anemone (Enemion biternatum). The foliage of these two flowers will look a lot of like. The easiest way to tell the difference is that False Rue Anemone will only ever have 5 petals on the bloom. Rue Anemone will have 5-10 petals. (Note that scientifically speaking these are not petals but petaloid sepals, but I’m using the word “petal” for simplicity). Rue Anemone has whorled leaves and grows lower to the ground; False Rue Anemone has alternate stem leaves and is typically branched in the upper plant.
Rue Anemone is on the left; False Rue Anenome is on the right.
Where Can You Find These Native Wildflowers??
The species featured in this post and in my Spring Ephemeral Wildflower Identification Cards Scavenger Hunt range in Eastern United States temperate deciduous forests and into parts of Eastern Canada as well. You can look in nature preserves or federal, state, and local parks that are protected.
There are some wildflowers, though, that can be found in a neighborhood yard or garden, depending on the situation. We have plenty of wild violets around our neighborhood because many people do not spray their lawns with chemicals, fostering a more natural area to benefit wildlife.
Be sure to enjoy these native plants in their natural surroundings. Some are protected species and all play an important part in the health of the ecosystem. These flowers are too delicate to pick and put in a vase or put in a flower press. Some of these flowers can even take years to bloom. Do not try to transplant these from a natural environment to your yard. They really are precious and are best left alone. Enjoy taking some photos of them, but be careful where you step!
(That said, if you’re like us and have naturally occurring wild blue violets in your yard, and no one in your neighborhood uses chemical sprays, you can harvest the violets to make a delicious simple syrup!)
Spring Ephemeral Wildflower Identification Cards and Scavenger Hunt
My husband and I have put together a Spring Ephemeral Wildflower Identification Cards Scavenger Hunt that is now available in my Etsy shop. We have used our own photography from over the past several years to pull together a group of wildflowers we hunt for every spring with our own two children (now ages 9 and 7).
This product contains one 8.5×11″ double-sided sheet you can use as a checklist. We laminate this sheet and use a dry erase marker to mark off each flower as we find it, that way we can erase it and use the same sheet year after year. The product also contains all 24 wildflowers as identification cards. You can print off the cards and create a ringed card field guide to bring in the forest with you. Simply print the corresponding pages, cut in to cards, laminate, punch a hole in each card and add a loose binder ring to the collection. I rounded the corners of our cards as well.
Wake Up, Woods is an excellent picture book aimed at children ages 5-10 that features spring ephemeral wildflowers. Wake Up, Woods showcases the splendor of the eastern North American woodlands through true-to-life illustrations that depict plants, such as green dragon and bloodroot, along with the insects, birds and mammals that have specialized roles in the plant’s reproduction. The book contains an ode to each flower in verse as well as scientific information and gorgeous illustrations. Highly recommend!
You can read more about all the contributions to this wonderful publication on the Indiana Native Plant Society’s site.
I have a list of some additional favorite books about flowers for children here:
Flower Themed Books for Children
I do also recommend owning a Wildflower Field Guide. We personally have an Indiana-specific guide and I do recommend you try and find a guide local to your region. It helps to narrow down the possibilities of what you are identifying rather than looking at a field guide with ALL North American wildflowers.
You may also be interested in the following nature based resources.
Common North American Wildflowers Illustrated Cards and Poster
Nature Journal Supplies and Resources
Thanks for reading!