Mark the arrival of spring with ephemeral flowers. Ephemeral means short-lived and refers to the fact that once their seed is ripe, the flowers and foliage of these perennials disappear, reappearing like magic the following spring.
Ephemeral wildflowers are relatively pest- and disease-free, and since they flourish on the slow release of nutrients common in garden soils, they don't need fertilizer. Several thrive under dry conditions. Here are my favorites; they grow in most regions of the country.
Sun to light shade
The majority of these plants grow in full sun to light shade in rich, well-drained soil (exceptions are noted). They are easy to grow in a woodland garden or under deciduous trees because they go dormant as the trees leaf out. The soil should be evenly moist in winter and spring, but it can become quite dry in summer.
Fawn lilies (Erythronium), such as the creamy 'White Beauty', are glorious additions to spring's floral tapestry. The leaves are mottled like a fawn. Several yellow-flowered varieties are available, among them 'Pagoda'.
Photo: Photo: (cc) Peter Stevens/Flickr
Chinese hellebore (Helleborus) has graceful, nodding pink flowers. Winter moisture doesn't harm it, but dry soil is necessary during summer, when all the leaves completely disappear.
Photo: (cc) Leonora Enking/Flickr
Oriental poppy (Papaver orientale) have huge crepe-paper flowers in fiesta colors that seem to usher in the vacation months. After flowering, however, the plants quietly fold up and remain dormant until autumn, when a fresh rosette of foliage appears.'Patty's Plum', has enormous dusty purple flowers.
Photo: (cc) Daryl Mitchell/Flickr
Siebold primrose (Primula) works well for winter-wet or moist spots. The starry, five-petaled flowers emerge in late spring, and by midsummer when conditions are dry, the plants retreat underground. This primrose is easy to grow throughout most of the country, even in semi-arid regions, as long as it is planted in humus-rich soil.
Pasque flower (Pulsatilla) have gorgeous purplish blue flowers and demand a well-drained spot with sandy or gravelly soil and a neutral pH. For areas with wetter and warmer winters, try European pasque flower. Pasque flowers do not grow well in regions with hot, humid summers.
Photo: (cc) Liz Jones/Flickr
Atamasco lily (Zephyranthes) grows well in gardens with wet soil in spring and winter, and it does fine in any moist, acidic soil. The pure white trumpets bloom around Mother's Day. Foliage persists through early summer, so provide ample sunshine while plants are in active growth. Voles and other garden critters usually don't eat the bulbs.
Photo: (cc) Katherine Fries/Flickr
Woodland shade The deciduous forests of North America put on one of the most dazzling displays of spring wildflowers seen anywhere in the world. Why such a show? Wildflowers are taking advantage of the light and moisture before the trees and other plants block out summer sunshine. For gardeners, especially those surrounded by trees, this means a brief but glorious flower display. The following plants thrive in neutral, humus-rich soil that is moist in winter and spring but can become dry in summer.
European wood anemone (Anemone) form solid drifts of white or blue flowers. Try the white and green 'Bracteata Pleniflora', the late-blooming white 'Vestal', the green-flowered 'Monstrosa', and the yellow-flowered buttercup anemone.
Photo: (cc) L.C. Nottaasen
European Toothwort (Cardamine) is lovely. Try the dramatic C. pentaphyllos. It has showy pink flowers.
Photo: (cc) Hickory Rose/Flickr
Leopard's bane (Doronicum) opens its yellow daisylike flowers with the daffodils. 'Little Leo' is a showstopper with double glowing golden flowers. Leopard's bane does well as far south as Virginia but wilts miserably farther south where spring days are hot. Plants produce fresh foliage in autumn after spending the summer underground.
Photo: (cc) Big City Al/Flickr
Trilliums (Trillium) fascinate me with their range of colors and intriguing shape. The great white trillium is native throughout the east and Midwest and is easily cultivated in rich soil. Gardeners on the west coast can grow the coast trillium. The unfortunately named bloody butcher is a purple trillium that forms an open groundcover. The dramatic yellow trillium has mottled leaves and lemon-scented yellow flowers.
Many native wildflowers, especially trilliums and fawn lilies, are illegally collected from the wild. Please shop responsibly. Buy only from nurseries that clearly state that their plants are nursery-propagated.
Photo: (cc) Peter Stevens/Flickr