Henry James said that the two most beautiful words in the English language are “summer afternoon.” But when you see this photograph of Riverside Park taken April 2, it gives you pause.
I cast a vote for the words “spring ephemerals.” The phrase doesn’t have the resonance of long shadows and leisurely days, but it means what it says. Spring ephemerals are fleeting. You will find them in the woods, generally low to the ground, and they are beloved of gardeners who are out and about with the first breath of mild air. They need the sunlight and the active pollinators that are present only before trees reach full leaf. They appear in early spring, and vanish within six to eight weeks.
Among the earliest of the spring flowers are the Trilliums. Called wake-robins because they begin to bloom at the same time as the return of the red robin, they are among the loveliest of the woodland flowers. Trilliums are beautiful as a single plant, but they are an astonishing sight when you come across them in large drifts. They are generous spreaders, so a large drift is not too much to hope for when planting.
There are about 30 Trillium varieties native to North America, and they are immediately recognizable as they all share a distinguishing feature -- the arrangement of three leaves, a single stem, and a single flower at the top. You will find them for sale in bulb catalogs, as they are tuberous plants.
Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema tryphyllum) makes a bold entrance into the landscape, emerging from the forest floor on a single, sharp, pointed spike. The leaves slowly unfurl, revealing a hooded enclosure, the spathe, and the rounded shape of the preacher “Jack,” which is then covered by the hooded “pulpit.” They are impossible to overlook.
If you are fortunate enough to have a patch of woodland, plant the wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), a close cousin of the sanguineum hybrids much admired in sunny borders. In the light shade, with its pink flowers and slightly loose habit, it is beautiful in combination with its wildling cousin, the columbine (Aquilegia canandensis). The geranium will form low mounds along the ground, while the columbine blooms on stems up to two-and-one-half feet, emerging from a mound of green leaves. Flowers can be yellow or red, and will bloom for almost a month.
Many of the ephemerals will spread to form a groundcover. Dwarf iris (Iris verna var. smalliana), can be used to particularly fine effect tucked in the crevices between large rocks. Growing no more than six inches tall, it will spread wherever there is room.
Woodland phlox (P. divaricata) lasts too long to be characterized as ephemeral, but is too beautiful to exclude. In early spring it blankets the woodland floor with sky-blue blossoms. Phlox slowly seeds itself about an area; individual plants grow into one-foot mounds, quickly forming a carpet of blue that lasts for several weeks.
Shooting star (Dodecatheon media) shows its tall clusters of white flowers atop single stems. Planted among ferns, it serves as a striking focal point. The foliage dies down and disappears in the summer, which will go unnoticed in a woodland garden.
For some reason, we seem to see more yellow ephemerals than any other color. Perhaps we notice them because we long for the sun. Green-and-Gold (Chrysoginum virginianum) blooms richly with a profusion of yellow, daisy-like flowers. It does so again in the fall.
Golden ragwort (Senecio aureus) is a rapid spreader, creating colonies of golden flowers rising above heart-shaped leaves. It is happiest in moist soil in sun or partial shade, thus a good choice for the woodland edge of a streamside. Heartleaf Golden Alexander (Zizia aptera) is another healthy spreader. Usually seen only in mid-western prairie gardens, its resistance to drought, heat, biting winds and severe winters make it a winner in the northeast.
On the wet side, the Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) blooms in a rich yellow when there is no other color around. It is usually found streamside where the downstream flow of water carries it along, allowing it to colonize on the banks. Their areas tend to increase on their own, and if you look closely you will find tiny tubers scattered over the surface of the soil.
One of the beauties of a woodland garden is that unlike cultivated borders you can forget about something once it has disappeared and not pay attention to the area until the following year, when you will enjoy the resurgence all over again. For now, when walking in the woods, keep your eyes on the forest floor. It’s there that you will find the tiniest and the most fleeting of the ephemerals.