Look Fast: It’s Spring Wildflower Season

What makes this moment in the garden so exceptional? The fleeting beauty of flowers you probably didn’t plant.,

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My adventures in wildflower propagation began on my knees, as so many garden tasks do.

It was decades ago; this old house was new to me then. I spied three small bits of green tucked just beneath the edge of the front porch and crawled down to investigate.

“Whoever you are, you cannot grow under there,” I thought (or more likely said aloud). Then, with a trowel, I lifted the strangers out.

Trilliums.

Their liberation from life under the porch was courtesy of me and my trowel. How they got there? Probably the work of ants.

I was reminded of those trilliums recently, while reading “Florapedia: A Brief Compendium of Floral Lore,” the latest by the naturalist Carol Gracie. One entry in the little A-to-Z book, under “E,” is elaiosome: the lipid-rich structure attached to each trillium seed that is the prize ants seek, grabbing one to carry back to the nest, to feed to their developing broods.


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ImageSome early spring woodland wildflowers, including blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), emerge with their foliage not green with chlorophyll, but showing more bluish or purple anthocyanin pigments, a defense against herbivory.
Some early spring woodland wildflowers, including blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), emerge with their foliage not green with chlorophyll, but showing more bluish or purple anthocyanin pigments, a defense against herbivory.Credit…Margaret Roach

“By providing an enticement for ants to take its seeds,” Ms. Gracie writes, “a plant ensures that the seeds will have a chance to grow in other localities, where they won’t have to compete with the parent plant for resources.”

Ecologists call this form of ant-plant mutualism myrmecochory — from the Greek words myrmex for ant and chorein for to wander, Ms. Gracie explains.

Another potential benefit of those wandering ants: Seed predators like rodents won’t find the prize as easily if an ant has moved it to a distance of up to 30 feet away.

Trillium seeds are not unique among spring wildflowers in having ant treats attached. Myrmecochory is an especially common mechanism in deciduous forests in Eastern North America, where it is estimated that as many as 35 percent of herbaceous understory species rely on it.

The list includes other early beauties like bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), merrybells (Uvularia grandiflora), celandine poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum), twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla) and even various species of wild violets (Viola).

It wasn’t the elaiosomes that attracted me, of course, but those three young plants. A slightly more informed version of that initial curiosity-driven trillium encounter is how I multiply the spring wildflowers that make this garden moment so exceptional. At either end of the season, when the soil is generally moister and the weather cool, I transplant whole plants or divisions, or relocate volunteer seedlings to better spots.

Whether you plan to do some transplanting or simply admire them in the garden or on a guided walk at a preserve, knowing these flowers’ life histories enriches the experience. “Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History,” an earlier book of Ms. Gracie’s, offers an in-depth reference.

One curious example: They may not look alike, but a number of treasured Eastern spring perennials, including blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) and twinleaf, are botanical cousins. So are the Pacific Northwest’s Vancouveria hexandra and the popular nonnative ground cover Epimedium. And all, maybe surprisingly, are members of the barberry family.

Also: Twinleaf, despite its common name and the diphylla in its Latin one, doesn’t have a pair of identical leaves. Look closely, Ms. Gracie reminds us. It is actually one leaf that is constricted in the middle, like an exaggerated bow tie. And when you see this treasure, be sure to admire it daily, she suggests, as its white flowers (which resemble bloodroot’s) are among the most fleeting of all.

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It is often recommended to divide Trillium in the fall, but at flowering time it is easier to see where the clumps are in the garden — and to dig the rhizomes — of those like the wake robin or purple trillium (T. erectum).Credit…Margaret Roach

Those three trilliums turned out to be Trillium erectum, the wake robin or purple trillium, one of several species that are native locally. (Not all of the plants mentioned here are native to my Hudson Valley county, but all are Eastern North American wildflowers.)

I didn’t know what I was doing when I moved them — most of all, was it the right timing? — but my impulsive decision worked. Trilliums, I later learned, grow from knobby underground rhizomes.

Although some species like T. grandiflorum can take 16 or 17 years to flower from seed, the wake robin takes a relatively short six or seven, Ms. Gracie writes.

Trilliums eventually self-sow, and it is thrilling to see the first of those three-part leaves — as its name suggests, everything about trillium comes in threes — emerge near older plants. It is sobering, though, to realize that those leaves are not from a seed that some ant missed the year before; they represent year four or later in the plant’s life cycle, and flowering is still two or three years off. Patience.

Dividing trilliums is frequently recommended as a fall task, but if a clump has grown big enough to offer divisions — or any time you want to move the whole thing somewhere else — do it when the plants are flowering. After they set seed, trilliums can act as ephemerals, going dormant and disappearing underground in summer’s heat, especially in warmer zones. Transplanting at bloom time eliminates the guesswork; if you put it off, they may be hiding when you get back to it. Planning a fall dig? Mark your plants now.

Whenever you dig rhizomes, look carefully, Ms. Gracie advises. The age of a trillium can be estimated by the annual constrictions on the rhizomes — like ridges, they represent where the stem arose in a previous year. Although the oldest ends of old rhizomes may have deteriorated and be missing, using this “count the constrictions” method has revealed trilliums as old as 70 years.

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The common name and the Latin modifier of twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla) would seem to suggest that the plant has pairs of identical leaves; in fact, it has single leaves that are extremely constricted in the middle, like an exaggerated bow tie.Credit…Margaret Roach

Like ants, wild violets are too often disregarded or treated harshly by gardeners. Yes, they sometimes sow around in inconvenient spots, but they are definitely not weeds.

Violets offer benefits besides their homespun beauty: They are host plants for caterpillars of fritillary butterflies; in late summer, adult butterflies lay their eggs on or near them.

And then there is the impressive backup plan that most Viola species have — just in case late frost gets the first round of flowers or rainy weather interrupts pollinator visits. (Or in my garden, in case the latest in a lineage of local woodchucks beheads his favorite spring delicacy.) In addition to the purple, yellow or white flowers we recognize, Ms. Gracie explains, violets have a second, more rudimentary bloom nearly hidden on their stalks, down by the base of the plant.

These almost budlike flowers are called cleistogamous, meaning that they don’t open, yet are capable of self-fertilization. Pollen transfer happens within the closed flower, without a pollinator’s assistance, ensuring that seed will be set even without the assistance of other forces.

Is your respect for violets increasing yet, alongside an appreciation of ants?

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A true ephemeral, Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) will disappear back underground after its floral show — so be sure to mark the plants, if your intention is to transplant them in the fall. Credit…Margaret Roach

Two spring natives that readily sow themselves around the garden sometimes overlap in bloom, making a vivid combination, Ms. Gracie said. The celandine poppy produces bright yellow blooms around the same time as true-blue Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica).

Another bluish moment in the bluebells’ life is when it emerges from underground with its foliage tinted almost purple. Blue cohosh and twinleaf do this, too, displaying pigments gardeners might expect in fall leaves rather than spring ones.

Why would early-rising woodlanders come up loaded with red and blue pigments (the anthocyanins) instead of green (from chlorophyll)?

There are various strategies that may be at work, Ms. Gracie said. These pigments may be less palatable than green ones to early-awakening herbivores, both animals and insects. They may also serve to protect tender young leaves from strong sunlight, before the canopy has leafed out.

A true ephemeral, Mertensia will disappear back underground after its show — so again, mark the plants if your intention is a fall dig.

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The larvae of fritillary butterflies, including the great spangled fritillary, depend on wild violets as host plants. Adult butterflies, like this one nectaring on Verbena bonariensis, lay their eggs on or near the violets.Credit…Margaret Roach

Don’t succumb to celandine confusion, Ms. Gracie cautions — it’s a potential pitfall when common names are applied to more than one plant. The Stylophorum, or celandine poppy, has a near look-alike and sound-alike in greater celandine (Chelidonium majus), a Eurasian weed whose yellow flowers are much smaller. The foliage is same-but-different, too (larger and more rounded in the weed).

Maybe the most obvious tipoff is when seed is being set. The fruits that hold Chelidonium’s seeds are upright and narrow, held like candles in a candelabra; celandine poppy’s are plump and delightfully bristly, and hang down. Of course, by the time you can see this you’ll have to hurry to get the unwanted fruits into a garbage bag or the next generation will be on its way.

And may you not be cursed (and further confused) by a yellow-flowered European invasive that inhabits wetland areas: Lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) is a far fiercer opponent.

In Ms. Gracie’s Westchester garden, a mayapple plant appeared one year, 30 feet uphill from her established patch, and gradually began to multiply.

“Somebody’s out there doing that,” she said to herself, but she knew with certainty that she hadn’t planted some and forgotten — and that this was not the work of ants.

“Since the fruits are eaten by box turtles, I must assume that a turtle planted the digested seed for me,” she said. “Though I’ve never seen one in the garden.”

Apparently she has a repeat customer. This spring, another patch, even farther away, appeared.


Margaret Roach is creator of the website and podcast A Way to Garden, and a book of the same name.

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