The thrill of spotting the first ephemeral flowers of spring.
Long Bloomers are easy to love: that blowing hydrangea, the patch of black-eyed Susans, the marathon of dahlias stretching into fall. But the gift of early blooming spring ephemera is evanescence, not endurance.
“Ephemeral” means “ephemeral,” explains Elaine Mills, master gardener in the Arlington/Alexandria unit of Virginia Cooperative Extension. “These plants are only above ground for a limited time.”
In the wild, mayflies are found on forest floors, where they emerge before the tree canopy flakes off. “The gentle early spring sun makes them grow,” Mills notes, and in that brief sunbath they will flower, be pollinated, lay their seeds, and then fade away until the next spring sun attracts them again. .
Perhaps the most familiar is the Virginia bluebell (which isn’t always blue, Mills says), but there are also miner’s lettuce, Holland’s breeches, bloodroot, toadshade, star stringy, toothpaste-cut, jack-in-the-pulpit, trout lily, and one (Erigenia bulbosa) is actually known as the “harbinger of spring.”
Spring ephemera provide a window into the wonderful interconnections of the natural world. Consider, for example, the spring beauty mining bee. Its specialty is the pollen of the ephemeral “spring beauty” (Claytonia virginica). The flowers of Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), which look like pants turned upside down, attract bumblebees equipped with a long proboscis to reach the nectar deep inside, while the pollen rises on the furry exterior of bees.
For the most macabre, the red trillium or “stinky youngest child” is pollinated by flies, attracted by the smell of rotting flesh it gives off. Jack-in-the-pulpit attracts a species of gnat, enticing them with a scent of wood mushrooms. Once the midges bring pollen from a male plant to a female plant, they become trapped and are buried in the flower of the female.
Not to be outdone, ants also play their part. According to Mills, a number of native mayflies rely on ants to spread their seeds, in a relationship known as “myrmecochory”, which literally means “dispersal of seeds by ants”.
These plants lay seeds to which are attached an enticing whole rich in lipids and proteins called “elaiosome”. The ants pick up the seeds and take them back to their nests to consume this nutritious treat, leaving the rest of the seed unharmed. “Seeds can be dispersed much more widely,” Mills explains, “than if they just fell around the plant.” Even mice and chipmunks get involved, spreading the tubers of the mayfly corn-squirrel.
The reward for us, of course, is sprays of spring beauty, carpets of mayapple, clusters of trillium and colonies of trout lilies.
So where to see mayflies this spring? There’s always a walk in the woods to see what you might find. But first, to find out what you’re looking for, watch the Virginia Native Plant Society’s “Spring Wildflowers of the Mid-Atlantic” video (VNPS.org) or watch Mills’ video of native spring mayflies on the website. Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia. on MGNV.org. Their site also lists demonstration gardens in the area. You can also visit the Boyce State Arboretum, the James Madison University Arboretum, or the Richmond and Norfolk Botanical Gardens.
And of course, you can plant mayflies in your own garden. Get some from reputable native plant nurseries (master gardeners at your local extension office in Virginia can provide recommendations), says Mills. Select a site where the plants will receive late winter and early spring sun but will be shaded later in the season. Start with odd numbers, says Mills, and “wiggle them gently and plant them roughly where they land, so you end up with asymmetrical plant disbursement.”
Come spring, will they dazzle you with their glory week after week? They certainly won’t. But after the long, dull winter months, how welcome they will be.
This article originally appeared in the February 2022 publish.