Written by: Thom Almendinger, Director of Stewardship at Duke Farms.
Spring ephemeral wildflowers are a group of perennial woodland wildflowers which grow stems, leaves, and/or flowers early each spring. After swiftly blooming, they are pollinated and produce the seed for future generations. The above-ground parts of the plants decline shortly thereafter due to the dense shade of the developing tree canopy. During the remainder of the growing season only underground plant parts are active like roots and bulbs. This life history is universal for herbaceous plant communities in many deciduous forests. This strategy allows for these low-growing plants to take advantage of the additional and vital solar energy that reaches them prior to the leaf and forest canopy development which eventually shades the forest floor.
Many of these woodland flowers have a very specific mechanism of seed dispersal known as myrmecochory or dispersal of seed by ants. The seeds are coated with a fat-rich appendages know as an eliaosomes. The ants “harvest’ the seeds and bring them back to their colony to feed to the young. The young feed on the eliaosome and the unscathed seed is removed and brought to a midden, a pile of organic waste material which is essentially compost. The rich, moist midden allows for the seeds to germinate readily ensuring the future generation of these gems of the forest.
Not all spring blooming plants are good for a healthy ecosystems (see photos 9 and 10 which are nonnative, invasive plants) and may in fact negatively impact the habitats where the proliferate.
Below is a gallery of several spring ephemeral wildflowers that can be found at Duke Farms. Note: all photos from Duke Farms and Duke Island Park