They bloom and vanish

Ephemerals: Like a perfect spring day, these fleeting perennials are rare and prized.

In The Garden

March 19, 2000|By Ann Egerton | Ann Egerton,Special to the Sun

The common names for the usually small, early spring, ephemeral plants conjure up a world of magic and play. Names like false mermaid (Floerkea proserpinacoides), harbinger-of-spring (Erigenia bulbosa) and spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) suggest a storybook world. They are playful in their habits too, for many are mysterious and elusive to find, identify and cultivate.

Ephemeral is the term for many flowers that come up in the early spring, bloom and, along with their foliage, quickly disappear. The quickness of their disappearance causes disagreement among horticulturists as to what really is an ephemeral. A few, such as harbinger-of-spring, bloom and disappear in just a few days, while others have a season of several weeks. Most experts do not consider the very early blooming bulbs and corms, such as winter aconite, chionodoxa and species crocus, to be ephemerals.

A true ephemeral, explains Stanley Kollar, who teaches botany at Harford Community College, is a plant "whose cycle lasts a very short time because of the environmental moods of the moment. In the desert, for instance, a shower can bring about certain flowers for a very short time." Kollar also owns Kollar Nursery in Pylesville.

Shopping for ephemerals can be a treasure hunt. Most merchants aren't eager to carry ephemerals because their season is so short; they aren't cost-effective. Still, gardeners are always looking for something different, and ephemerals are offered in some retail nurseries now, in addition to mail-order catalogs, such as White Flower Farm and Wayside Gardens. One can also find several selections at Cylburn Arboretum's Market Day on May 13, and at the Irvine Natural Science Center's Native Plant Sale on Aug. 26. If you want to have another plant to succeed the ephemeral as it goes dormant, be careful not to disturb it with the next plant or with your shovel or trowel.

Several ephemerals -- such as harbinger-of-spring, also called pepper and salt for the white petals and black stamens; spring beauty, which is pink and white striped; or false mermaid -- are so short-lived that few of us would bother to have them in the garden. Instead, they are something to come upon in the woods and savor during their brief appearance. Most ephemerals that grow here are native to our region.

Ephemerals that you are most likely to find locally include trout lily (Erythronium americanum); Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), whose flowers are first pink, then lavender blue; and wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa). Two of the native dicentras -- squirrel corn (Dicentra canadensis) and Dutchman's-breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) -- are also often offered.

Some say that mertensia, at about 18 inches, is too big to be a true ephemeral. What's an ephemeral? "It depends on who you talk to," says Alan Summers, owner of Carroll Gardens in Westminster.


Carroll Gardens

444 E. Main St.

Westminster, Md. 21157

410-848-5422; 410-876-7336

Cylburn Arboretum

4915 Greenspring Ave.

Baltimore, Md. 21209


Irvine Natural Science Center

8400 Greenspring Ave.

Stevenson, Md. 21153


Kollar Nursery

5200 West Heaps Road

Pylesville, Md. 21132


Park Seed Company

1 Parkton Ave.

Greenwood, S.C. 29647-0001


Wayside Gardens

1 Garden Lane

Hodges, S.C. 29695-0001


White Flower Farm

P.O. Box 50

Litchfield, Conn. 06759-0050


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