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Spring Ephemerals

This time of year, PEI’s landscape can look a little drab. It may seem like planted Magnolias, Daffodils, and Tulips are the only showy flowers to be found, but there are many beautiful, native flowers in bloom right now if you know where to look!  I’ll show you two groups this week, starting today with some of our spring ephemerals.

Photo 1: Dutchman's Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) on PEI.

Spring ephemerals are perennial plants that appear in April and May, complete their entire life cycle within a few weeks, and then disappear for the rest of the year. This can be a hard time of year to make a living if you’re a plant, but mycorrhizal fungi help many spring ephemerals absorb nutrients from the still-cool soil. 


There are two key advantages to this lifestyle. First – and most importantly – these plants benefit from lots of early season sunlight hitting the forest floor. Deciduous trees are leafless, shrubs have just barely started, ferns are still fiddleheads, and sunlight can reach the ground, warm it up, and be used by plants that wake up before these others.  


Second is the botanical version of “the early bird catches the worm”, or in this case the pollinator.  These early-flowering plants support a range of native pollinators including Bumble Bees, Carpenter Bees, Cuckoo Bees, Mason Bees, and Sweat Bees, as well as a variety of flies. In another couple of weeks, showy flowers will be a dime a dozen and it will be harder to catch the attention of generalist pollinators.

Photo 2: Spring Beauty (Claytonia caroliniana) on PEI.

Many of PEI’s spring ephemerals are locally abundant but provincially rare.  Their rarity is due to habitat loss: these are plants of unploughed forests and intact riparian zones, and don’t grow on sites that have been extensively disturbed. But where conditions are right, you can find thousands of individuals blanketing the spring landscape.


I think of Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria, Photo 1) as the poster child for PEI’s spring ephemerals. This is one of only two native members of the Poppy Family (Papaveracea) found here, and gardeners may recognize it as resembling Bleeding Heart (also in the Poppy family and the same genus as Dutchman’s Breeches). This beautiful plant grows in rich, undisturbed streamside areas and I enjoy finding it while collecting fiddleheads each year.


The aptly-named Spring Beauty (Claytonia caroliniana, Photo 2) sometimes shares its habitat with Dutchman’s Breeches but can also be found in upland hardwood forests. Its pale petals have veins of darker pink that I think look like someone painted them on with a fine brush. While Spring Beauty attracts a variety of pollinators, there is one species of bee – the Spring Beauty Miner Bee – that feeds exclusively on this plant and its close relative C. virginica.

Photo 3: Dwarf Ginseng (Panax trifolius) on PEI.

Dwarf Ginseng (Panax trifolius, Photo 3) is a smaller relative of Asian Ginseng (P. ginseng), a plant that has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years.  Although Asian Ginseng doesn’t grow in North America, American Ginseng (P. quinquefolius) and Dwarf Ginseng do. Wild populations of American Ginseng were significantly overharvested in Ontario and Quebec (the only places in Canada it’s found), leading to this plant being listed as Endangered and protected under Species at Risk legislation in 2003.  PEI’s native Dwarf Ginseng is much smaller and so hasn’t seen the commercial pressure of its larger relative, but it is rare Provincially and should not be harvested.


As temperatures warm and trees leaf out, these and other ephemerals will die back and store energy underground. They’ll continue to grow, unseen, until they re-appear next spring as beautiful and important parts of PEI untamed!

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Kate, Thx. It's a wonderful time of year for wild flower folks, I wrote a complementary article for the NS Wild Flora Society a few years back:

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What a wonderful article, thank you for sharing! We also have Toothwort and Trout Lily here on PEI (both rare), though I don’t have photos. I’m jealous of the ones you have in NS that we don’t here, such as Wild Leek and Bloodroot. 😊

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