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Slow Down to See Spring's Ephemeral Flowers: Beautiful, Important, and Short-Lived

Published Apr 11, 2019 • Last Updated 02:18 pm, April 11, 2019

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Big bursts of yellow forsythia call out to us right now like billboards for spring, easy to see as we fly by in cars, trains, or on bicycles.

It's a welcome sight, but the picture is missing something. Unfortunately, forsythia is not native to our area—and, therefore, not of life-nurturing importance to some of the most endangered regional insects, the early-emerging bees, butterflies, flies, wasps, and moths that are known to insect scientists as "feeding specialists." Some of these choosy creatures rely on early-blossoming native flowers for pollen and other support.

As a group, these early flowers are called spring ephemerals. They are important to native insects, but their relationship with insects is not a one-way street. In many cases, the insects cross-pollinate the flowers, which leads to seed production. Some ants, like the pollinators, derive important nutrition from the seeds. Indirectly, ants spread the seeds of many ephemerals. The circle continues.

Please note: These spring blossoms are not the same as the flowers that emerge from the bulbs we plant. Most of those bulbs are from places far away, with few exceptions.

If you want to see these worthy native flowers, you must slow down and narrow your focus to woodlands, streamsides, and rocky ledges. A good book can help with identification, such as Wildflowers of New England by Ted Elliman and the New England Wild Flower Society (Timber Press). As you start to learn about them, you'll find that ephemerals emerge and blossom in spring because they need the dappled sunshine of open woodlands, before trees get their leaves in mid to late May. Most are less than 12 inches tall. Most blossom for less than two weeks, some for just a few days. Ants spread the seeds of many ephemerals.

By all means, enjoy the bright blast of forsythia. But if you want to know what really puts the buzz in an April day, it's important to retrain your focus to a much smaller scale.

Kathy Connolly is a writer and speaker from Old Saybrook who focuses on landscapes, land care, and local ecology. Reach her through her website


Where to See Spring Ephemerals Two Tours Planned

You'll find a treasure chest of ephemeral flowers in the native plant collection area of Connecticut College Arboretum in New London ( anytime between now and early June. The arboretum is open to the public daily, free of charge, from sunrise to sunset. Among the plants likely to be in blossom during April and early May are blunt-lobed hepatica (Anemone americana), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaris), and trout lily (Erythronium americanum). The plants are well labeled, taking away the guesswork for those of us who are still learning how to identify plants. The arboretum's native plant collection focuses on eastern North America.

If you'd like an expert to guide your walk among ephemerals, there are two tours at the arboretum in New London on Friday, May 3, both free of charge.

First, walk with Glenn Dreyer, director emeritus, from noon to 1 p.m. Learn about the ecology of these plants and the history of the native plant collection. No registration is required. Enter through the Williams Street gates to the arboretum; meet at the outdoor theater (downhill, near the pond).

Later the same day, kids and their adults can join Caroline Driscoll, a long-time arboretum volunteer, on the "Just for Kids Wildflower Walk" from 4 to 5 p.m. Through interactive play, children learn the identity of several wildflowers. They then can test themselves on a walk in the wildflower garden to find the real living flowers. Appropriate for ages 4 to 10. Meet at arboretum gates on Williams Street. Reservations are needed for the children's event. Email or call 860-439-5020.

Editor's note: The children's walk has been rescheduled to May 10 from 4 to 5 p.m. Both walks are free of charge. Please call or email the Arboretum to get more details and register. Email"> or call 860-439-5020 for more information.


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