Ephemerals in the Garden

Ilona Erwin

Some of my flower favorites are ephemeral plants -fleeting flowers which grace a garden and then disappear into the ground, waiting until the next year. Oriental poppies, Bleeding Hearts, Virginia Bluebells, Wildflowers of all sorts are among the numbers of perennials termed “ephemeral plants”.

bleeding heart flowers

The old fashioned garden favorite known as “Bleeding Heart” has had a name change. Once known as Dicentra spectabilis, it is now ‘Lamprocapnos spectabilis’

Ephemeral:  transitory

Because of their short-lived transitory presence in the garden this group of plants are given their designation to highlight their life cycle. They may spend a long time (years) in a dormant state, or simply certain periods of the year. In response to challenging environments these are plants that briefly enter their epigeous or above ground growth stage when conditions are right.

Ephemeral Types

Spring

Wildflowers, and some garden flowers are spring blooming, only to go dormant and disappear the rest of the year. They take advantage of available light before the full leaf canopy of overhead trees unfurl.

Desert

For the short periods of rainfall in arid regions, these plants take advantage of favorable moisture conditions.

Mud-flat annuals

These are the opposite of the desert types, and take advantage of periodical low water conditions.

Weedy

Growing profusely after disturbed conditions of fire or human disturbance. They literally “grow like weeds”, to take advantage of the lack of competition in such periods.

epigeous or above ground growth phase / hypogeous, or below ground growth phase

Gardening With Ephemerals

Many of these types of plants are rarely encountered when making a perennial garden in Ohio, (or most places  with a general garden bed or border). But one ephemeral category familiar to us is the wildflower. They may even comprise a garden of their own in a shady woodland space.

Woodland Wildflowers

Woodland Wildflowers

Wildflowers

Trilliums, Rue anemone, Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), Trout lilies (Erythronium), Mayapples, Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia), Hepatica, Spring beauties (Claytonia virginica), are all flowers of our Eastern woodlands. Each spring they appear in their haunts, while sunlight is plentiful amidst the bare bones of deciduous trees and twiggy underbrush. Part of their charm is their short lived bloom and their quaint foliage.

Mayapples are evident in many of our parks in Ohio, along with many of the others. I regularly spot the Spring Beauties spotted through grass in the oak openings of our pastures. Trout lilies and Virginia bluebells have been spotted streamside in the woods.

While some like a drier, well-drained place (Dutchman breeches and Rue anemone), the rest like moisture and wood duff.

Why Grow Such a Transitory Plant?

Grow ephemeral plants because of their beauty, for one reason, but ephemerals do have a purpose that trumps the design gap of their disappearance. Some of them, like Oriental poppies, bridge two main bloom seasons. Then, there is the element of surprise that the transitory presence of such plants bring to the garden. The early spring bloomers provide vital forage for bees.

Plant List

Alliums spp.
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)
Celandine poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum)
Columbines
Dogtooth Violet (Erythronium dens-canis)
Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)
Jack-In-The-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum )
Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis)
Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris)
Oriental Poppy (Papaver orientale)
Pasque Flower (Pulsatilla patens)
Rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides)
Shootingstar (Dodecatheon pulchellum)
Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)
Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis)
Tradescantia
Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum)
Trollius
Trout lily (Erythronium americanum)
Twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla)
Virginia bluebell (Mertensia virginica)
Yellowbell (Fritillaria pudica)

Those flowers grown from “summer bulbs” like Cannas, Dahlias, and Begonias may also be considered transitory, because they are not hardy. Their bloom is long, lasting all summer, but their lifespan must be prolonged through digging and storing.

Showy Garden Splash

Oriental Poppies are loved for their big gorgeous blooms which make quite a visual splash. The silky petals centered with a dark central boss of anthers are especially striking in their orange and red forms, but white and pinks can take center stage, easily.

Unlike their annual counterparts, the Shirley poppies and others, Papaver orientale is reliably perennial.

Orange Oriental Poppies

Papaver orientale in the default orange hue.

 

Garden Design Tips for Plant Ephemerals

  • Choose companion plants which leaf out and fill in empty spots left by dormancy.
  • Pop in annual plants next to the fading ephemerals.
  • Site in conspicuous area, so as not to be missed during short bloom period.

Gertrude Jekyll used what she called “contrivances” to make sure there were replacements for fading plantings of ephemeral plants. For example, Oriental poppies were interplanted with Gypsophila paniculata which covered yellowing foliage with its spread of delicate flower. Around the verge of the Gypsophilia, climbing nasturtiums produced flower and color for the summer’s finale.

This is the type of grouping that gives an all season interest to a garden border.

Growing Tips for Transitory Perennials

Planted while in active growth or while dormant.

Check special plant  requirements for wildflowers.

Divide just after they bloom.

Additional Reading

Shade Garden, by the Paintbox Garden for photos and ideas.

Early Spring Woodland Plants

 

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Ilona Erwin, author

Meet the Author

Ilona Erwin

I started working on this website beginning in 1998, when it was part of Ilona's Reflecting Pool. Since then I've branched out into a number of online endeavors and work at writing lots of content for my sites. "Ilona's Garden" remains my primary site and is dedicated to home gardener's success.