February is when winter begins to fade ever so slightly. The shelves are filled with Valentine’s Day cards and chocolates. Phil makes an appearance, and we all watch closely to see if the groundhog sees his shadow. Whatever the outcome, spring isn’t here yet; just wait until march 20and.
But there you go, some of our natives fleeting springs start to appear. Some magical flowers bloom as early as February, when the sun can reach them on the forest floor before the trees begin to leaf.
The spring ephemeral season begins in February and ends in May. The flowers are short-lived and fade quickly. I recommend taking a stroll through one of Westchester’s many nature preserves and trying your luck at spotting (but not shooting) them. Here are some of my favorite ephemera blooming in this area to watch.
Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) – Flowers from February to April
This pinkish-white spring beauty with star petals can sometimes bloom as early as February and only last a week, so keep your eyes peeled. The flowers wait to open until the native solitary bees are ready. In particular, the lesser bee will only collect pollen from the spring beauty; it can only feed on this one plant. And he lays his eggs on that one plant. This is an example of a specialized plant-animal relationship, developed over thousands of years as the two species interacted and lived in the same habitat. It highlights the importance of native plants and their role in a biodiverse food web.
Skunk cabbage (Symplocarp foetidus) – Flowers from February to April
Skunk cabbage is my absolute favorite ephemeral. I love the provocative shape of the skunk cabbage flower. And the scent is so unique that when it first blooms in the spring, I just have to stop and pick it up. The mottled purple-red flower curls up with a spike in the middle. Beetles and flies are the primary pollinators of skunk cabbage, which is why it gives off a pungent smell of carrion. Somehow the cabbage produces its own heat, hot enough to create flower buds as hot as 70 degrees, melting the snow around it. The next time you walk near a wetland or stream, keep your eyes and nose out.
Dutch panties (Dicentra cucullaria) – Flowers from April to May
The most adorable spring ephemera is the Hollandais panties. The little white pants seem to move up and down the center rod. Within each pair of breeches is nectar that only long-tongued bees, such as bumblebees, can access. Here’s another specialized relationship where the flower co-evolved with a type of bee, and it’s the only animal that can pollinate dutch breeches. The plant is poisonous to many mammals, including deer, and makes a great addition to a moist garden with dappled shade. They bloom low to the ground for 2-3 weeks, so be sure to spot them before they fade away and ‘go away’.
Our native spring ephemera are valuable and help enhance the look and function of a landscape rich in biodiversity. While the flowers are each beautiful and incredibly unique, behind the scenes there is a complex set of ecosystem relationships, such as springtime beauty blooming in time for the leaf miner to pollinate it. By planting native plants in our yards, we can help support a diverse and naturally beautiful ecological network.
Amanda Bayley is CEO and co-founder of Plan it Wild, a sustainable land management company bringing native habitats back to the yards of Westchester.
More Nature. Now. www.PLANitWILD.com