Here Today, Gone in a Few Weeks

Just missed it! I was hoping to take a photo of a queen bumblebee gathering pollen on the wildflower Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria). As I looked away for one moment, the bee flew onto the plant two feet in front of me and flew off just as I saw it. I have heard that these flowers are an important early nectar source for queen bumblebees, who need to gather pollen for their new broods. I look forward every spring to seeing these wildflowers and their pollinating insects again, but there aren’t as many of either as there used to be.

Wildflowers such as Dutchman’s Breeches are called spring ephemerals. They emerge through the leaf litter here in Connecticut in March and April to take advantage of the short window of spring sunlight and flowering before leaves in the tree canopy above grow to shade them out. By summer, you would never know that they had been here.

Dutchman’s Breeches are an important nectar source for newly emerged queen bumblebees – Photo by author

The flowers of Dutchman’s Breeches look like upside-down pantaloons, hence the name. Walking along the nearby Farmington Canal Greenway this week, I came upon a nice patch in full bloom. It’s amazing to me how many people walked or rode by and didn’t look down and see them. Two researchers in 1998 called this “plant blindness,” for our inability to notice plants in our environment, which has consequences for conservation and human health.

Trout Lily can take up to 7 years to flower – Photo by author

The Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum) is another ephemeral found in the eastern United States. Also called Fawn Lily, its leaves resemble a speckled brook trout, or a fawn’s mottled fur. Another name is Dogtooth Violet for its pointed bulbs, although the plant is a member of the lily family and is not a true violet. Look for paired leaves because those will be the plants that will flower. It can take up to seven years for Trout Lily to flower, and only about half a percent of the plants in a patch will do so. Some patches, though can be up to 300 years old!

Blood Root is one of many spring ephemerals whose seed is spread by ants – Photo by author

Blood Root (Sanguinaria canadensis) isn’t a true ephemeral. Its leaves often don’t die back quickly, but it’s flowers last only a few days. However, the plant shares its seed dispersal strategy with many ephemerals. Blood Root, Trout Lily, and Dutchman’s Breeches all develop elaiosomes, fleshy structures full of lipids that are attached to seeds. Ants are attracted to these fatty structures and take them underground to their colony to feed on them. The seeds are then deposited in their subterranean waste pile, where they are fertilized and grow. This strategy is called myrmecochory. Blood Root gets its name from its scarlet sap, once used as a dye by Eastern Woodlands peoples.

Seed of Twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla) yellowish appendage called an elaiosome. This fat body attracts ants, which carry the seed to their nest -Photo by Hans Stuessi / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)

How important are plant–pollinator relationships! Many of our insect pollinators, so critical for our own survival, are also vital for our spring flora. Among these are small solitary bees in the genus Andrena. There are specialist bees that are dependent on certain plants and the plants on them. The Trout Lily Bee (Andrena erythronii) only gathers pollen from the Trout Lily and the bee Andrena erigeniae only visits the flowers of Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica).

The specialist Trout Lily Bee (Andrena erythronii) only pollinates Trout Lilies – Photo by Mary Anne Borge http://the-natural-web.org

Unfortunately, many native wildflower species are decreasing, and with them their specialist pollinators. Habitat fragmentation plays a big part in this. But increasingly significant are the introduced, invasive plants that are taking over. On a recent walk, I found a few patches of Blood Root completely surrounded by thousands of Garlic Mustard (Allaria petiolata) seedlings. Garlic Mustard not only can choke out our native plants, but research has shown that this invasive has allelopathic chemicals that can kill important soil fungi, preventing many plants from growing near it. Each Garlic Mustard plant can produce more than 5,000 seeds that can remain viable in the soil for five years or more.

Blood Root growing among thousands of seedlings of Garlic Mustard, an invasive that will choke out many plants including Blood Root – Photo by author

I see more Mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris) and Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica) around too. These introduced plants do not contribute to our local ecosystems. They don’t have insects who co-evolved with them to eat their leaves or who are specialists to rely on their nectar and pollen and they can choke out native plants. As entomologist Doug Tallamy observes, “this is a growing problem for humanity because it is the plants and animals around us that produce the life support we all depend on. Every time a species is lost from an ecosystem, that ecosystem is less able to support us.” So, one way for you and your family to exercise during COVID-19 social distancing and help the environment is by removing these plants from your yard or neighborhood and putting them in the trash. Garlic Mustard’s mature, second year plants can be hand-pulled fairly easily.

The mature, 2nd year Garlic Mustard plant just before flowering. Pull it and put in garbage when you see it! Photo by Tom Parlapiano

You can add many of these spring ephemerals to your garden after removing invasive plants. But please don’t dig them from the wild. Many local nurseries are now carrying these wildflowers, but be sure to ask whether the plants are nursery propagated. Plant them in a soil enriched with compost where they will receive light shade and part sun in the summer. Make sure they don’t dry out in the spring. You only need add a thin layer of ground-up leaves (your mower works well for this) in the spring or fall. The bees will thank you.

Published by Jim Sirch

Jim Sirch is the author of Beyond Your Back Door, a weekly blog about nature in your neighborhood. He is also Education Coordinator for the Yale Peabody Museum, a UConn Master Gardener and board member of his local land trust. As a trained naturalist, he brings a deep understanding of geology, plants and wildlife and how they interact within a particular ecosystem. He holds a B.S in Forestry from West Virginia University, a B.S. from Miami University in Science Education; and an M.S. in Environmental Studies Administration from Antioch University. He is also the 2014 Sigmund Abeles Award recipient from the Connecticut Science Teachers and Supervisors Association for outstanding science teaching and professional development.

12 thoughts on “Here Today, Gone in a Few Weeks

  1. I’m enjoying these spring plant profiles and the photos immensely! Spring wildflowers are so beautiful and interesting: it’s like finding treasure in the woods! Thanks for including information about the pollinators as well. Yesterday I saw a bee on the trout lilies in the yard, but didn’t get a photo—too fast for me. But it’s helpful to understand the type of bee that pollinates the trout lily. Also enjoyed the previous skunk cabbage post–you know it’s spring when the skunk cabbage is up in the woods. Looking forward to reading about your next wildflower finds!

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  2. Thanks for the interesting article! I live in Bethany and will be in the “Garlick mustard must go”mode! I never paid much attention to finding this plant but now my eyes will be wide open!

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  3. Great article Jim-Thank you! We hike every day and looking out or these beautiful (and not so beautiful) plants makes it ever more interesting. So we will be on alert for the Garlic Mustard plant and remove as much as possible, adding some muscle workout to our hike is an added plus!
    Thank you again Jim-always enjoy your articles- Tina

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  4. Thanks Jim. Loved the info and the photos are just beautiful. Can’t wait til I can get out to places where these beauties are growing. Love spring!

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