Got Ephemerals?

I’ve written several articles on “cool plants”, plants with winter character, unusual plants etc. It just occurred to me I’ve never written about the Ephemerals! How could I forget them?

The ephemerals are typically considered to be very short lived flowers. The wildflowers immediately come to mind. Those cool little flowers that pop up early in spring and last only a couple weeks. Things like trillium, Dutchman’s breechs and trout lilies. But I’m going to throw in the flower bulbs as well. They are relatively short lived. Bulbs are the epitome of low maintenance ………..indeed, even NO maintenance! You plant them once and forget them forever until you get that nice color surprise. You’ll hear people talk about covering them to protect from a late frost but I wouldn’t bother. They are tough and normally bounce back. Besides ……………you can crush them with a blanket or forget to take it off in the daytime and further encourage new growth. Of the major bulbs I recommend only the daffodils or narcissus. There are many types, sizes and colors but the daffodils will “naturalize” and spread over the years. They are not bothered by squirrels as they are poisonous, unlike tulips and hyacinths which are eaten by squirrels and often die out after a few years. Yes you’ll see wonderful displays of tulips in public gardens but they are planted new every year, just like annuals. If you’ve got a woodlot, the simplest thing to do is plant groups of bulbs and let them spread to brighten up your spring.

The “minor bulbs” are another group well worth planting. These are the smaller flower bulbs including crocus, scilla (squill), galanthus (snow drops) and anemones. Unlike the larger tulips and hyacinths there are smaller species of these that are good naturalizing minors. Grape hyacinths and tulipa tarda are a couple worth mentioning. The minors can even be planted in your lawn as they bloom before you are mowing the grass. Then when you start mowing they just disappear. Otherwise the minors are nice in rock garden beds or near walkways where they are easily observed.

There are even ephemerals that bloom in summer and fall. Lycoris (magic lilies) display dark green foliage in spring but then shoot up leafless stalks of bright pink flower clusters in summer. There is an autumn flowering crocus that catches me by surprise every fall and reminds me to go plant more of them!

Having said all this about ephemerals, they are not a group that we normally design into garden plans. Maybe we should and maybe we will but they are usually planted only in the fall and they are so briefly effective that it’s not something I normally think of when trying to achieve all season effect. We don’t usually design in annuals either as they’ll die at the end of the season. We are normally going for permanent things and flowers that last longer. But this is certainly a group of plants that you should consider adding to your garden for a seasonal surprise!