Nature Notes

Ephemeral Dreams

By Mary Beth Pottratz

Why is spring so alluring? Do you love the relief from winter’s icy temperatures? Maybe you savor longer days, tree buds or other signs of new life? Do you look for migratory birds or nesting and baby animals? Or the fresh spring hues after months of drab?

At the Arboretum today, bright swaths of spring bulbs paint the landscape. There are hillsides of gold daffodils with orange or yellow throats. Tall tulips are blooming in masses of white, purple, deep pink, cherries and magentas, red and yellow. Even lilacs are starting to bloom.

But I pass them all without stopping on my way to the wildflower garden. Here I find flowers that will sprout, bud, bloom and die back to the ground over a few weeks – or even days. Soon there will be no visible evidence that they were even here at all! These are spring ephemerals. These are what make spring so alluring to me.

No large masses of bright colors here! I have to pause, look down, and survey the ground every few minutes as small clumps of dainty flowers – just inches above ground – come into view.

The pasque flower buds I photographed three weeks ago are now in full bloom. These are a deep purple species, in contrast to the pale lavender that grow wild in Minnesota goat prairies and bluffs.

Prairie smoke, or purple avens, line the walk towards the Wildflower Garden. They nod from fuzzy purple stems, their tempera-pink buds barely starting to open. After its petals drop, its stems will straighten, and the styles will grow straight up in feathery plumes, looking like puffs of purplish smoke.

A white-breasted nuthatch laughs from the woodland garden, calling me on. Tall trees are beginning to bud and cast a shadow in the forest already. The ephemerals must bloom, quickly storing the sun’s energy before the forest floor is shaded by the trees.

The white flower of twinleaf is not quite fully open, its single leaf still folded at the middle. Twinleaf is similar to and often confused with bloodroot. The bloodroot here is nearly done blooming, and the two make nice companion plantings to extend the bloom time.

White Trout Lily

Trout lilies are scattered throughout the forest floor. This delightful bloom is named for its two mottled leaves resembling trout. Each lily nods downward with recurved tepals.  Six golden-yellow stamens extend down like clappers from a bell.


Suddenly, the prehistoric call of a Pileated woodpecker makes me jump! Its call echoes away as it flies off into the woods. Robins fill the silence with their “Pip, pip, cheerio!” calls.

There are still some scattered hepaticas and Dutchman’s breeches in bloom. Violets are everywhere in white, blue, and yellow shades. The dainty, blushing white petals of cut-leaf toothwort spray from atop its filigree leaves.

Nodding yellow petals of large-flowered bellwort contrast with its green leaves and the tans and grays of the forest floor. Nearby, groups of mayapples are just starting to set their buds, and large-flowered trilliums sport white trumpets.

Round clumps of marsh marigold hold glowing golden flowers above deep green leaves, as though shouting to the woodland, “Spring is here!”

Marsh Marigold

Virginia bluebells are bending heavy with pink buds transitioning to blue blossoms. I am surprised to find wild blue phlox already in bloom. A chipping sparrow sings its staccato notes, and then chips its sharp note at me in alarm until I move on.

It’s hard to leave the woods, knowing that in a few short weeks these flowers will be just a dream of next year’s spring.

 Mary Beth Pottratz is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer

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