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Native Spring Ephemerals for the Midwest

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The narrow window between the melting of the snow and the peeling of the trees is the ideal time to enjoy a wide variety of native spring ephemeris in our Midwestern gardens. They steal the show in shady and wooded areas, then retreat in the heat of summer before other, later-emerging plants take over. Creating plant combinations with these ephemeris can become an art form. I like to pair them with some of the toughest heat-resistant perennials like hostas (Hosta spp. And cvs., Zones 3-9) and ferns, which can then spark the next wave of interest in those shady spaces. Look for reputable sources for ephemeral specimens from nursery schools as wild collection is inappropriate. Here are five beautiful Native Spring Ephemeris for the Midwest.

Dutchman’s breeches are a unique perennial with oddly shaped flowers. Photo: Mark Dwyer

Dutch pants

Dicentra cucullaria, zones 3-7

The fern-like leaves of this early-emerging plant are just as welcome as the white, pantaloon-shaped, double-spurred flowers. Native to much of North America, the Dutchman’s breeches colonize beautifully, have a light scent, and will attract the early attention of bumblebees. The seeds are distributed by ants in a fascinating process called myrmecochory. The Dutchman’s breeches are 30 cm tall and should be planted in full to partial shade.

Virginia bluebellsThe baby blue flowers of the Virginia Bluebells emerge from pink and purple buds in large clusters. Photo: Mark Dwyer

Virginia bluebells

Mertensia virginica, zones 3-8

Native to humid, rich forests and floodplains in much of eastern North America, Virginia Bluebells offers an amazing pop of color in early spring. The gloomy, bluish-maroon, oval leaves emerge early and quickly expand to an apple-green color. The leaves are followed by hanging, trumpet-shaped flowers that open as pink buds and turn into a beautiful sky blue. The early flowers attract a variety of pollinators, and plants can grow up to 2 feet tall in full to partial shade. This clump-forming perennial spreads steadily in wooded areas and prefers decent moisture. For Virginia Bluebells, calm comes pretty quickly as the leaves turn yellow, flop, and quickly fade in summer.

Mayapple flowerYou may have to crouch to see the delicate blooms of Mayapple beneath large, umbrella-like leaves. Photo: Mark Dwyer

Mayapple

Podophyllum peltatum, zones 3–8

This colonizing native perennial is widespread in most of eastern North America, south to Texas, and northern Canada. The umbrella-like (pelted) leaves of Mayapple emerge in a tight formation very early in the spring and unfold quickly. A single, beautiful white flower emerges from the axis (connection point) of two leaves and later forms a small, lemon-shaped fruit. This perennial tolerates growing under walnuts (Juglans spp. And cvs., Zones 4–9) and is of no interest to rabbits or deer. It forms dense mats in moist, open woodland, prefers full to partial shade, and reaches 12 to 18 inches tall. The leaves, roots, and seeds are poisonous, while the fruits (without the seeds) are edible. Keep in mind that given the right conditions, this plant can spread a little aggressively.

Blood rootBloodroot’s white petals contrast well with the mustard yellow centers. Photo: Mark Dwyer

Blood root

Sanguinaria canadensis, zones 3–8

Native to all of eastern and central North America, bloodroot is a true harbinger of spring, as its twisted, felted, and lobed leaves appear early. A solitary, flawless white flower (occasionally pale pink) emerges and opens into a 2 inch wide, very symmetrical bloom with a golden orange center. The plants prefer full to partial shade and reach 1 foot tall. The leaves continue to grow and gain height above the fading flower and turn yellow in summer when the plant is dormant. The red juice from the underground trunk has many historical uses by indigenous cultures, and the seeds of this plant are also distributed by ants.

Wrong Rue AnemoneFalse rue anemone creates a carpet of bright white, five-petalled flowers. Photo: Mark Dwyer

Wrong Rue Anemone

Enemion biternatum, zones 3–7

This perennial tuber forms beautiful spots in wooded areas. False rue anemones actually send basal foliage in the fall and resume rapid growth in the spring. The loose clusters of white, anemone-like flowers are numerous and quite showy. The plants themselves are small, only reaching 6 to 9 inches in height, and prefer full to partial shade. The flowers do not produce nectar – just pollen – but still attract early insect activity. This species is threatened or endangered in some of its native areas in eastern North America. This is another reason why you should add them to your garden.

– Mark Dwyer, former director of horticulture at the Rotary Botanical Gardens in Janesville, Wisconsin, runs MD’s Landscape Prescriptions.

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Robert Dunfee