What do skunk cabbage, trout lily, trillium, and dutchman's breeches have in common? I'll give you a hint; they are not song titles of an obscure 1980s album by Metallica. Nor are they pet names for my boyfriend. Instead, they are all variations of spring ephemerals.
I learned about ephemerals with my mom, Pam, during a recent tour at the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary in Minneapolis. It's a wonderful, historic, free-of-charge park in the middle of the city.
Ephemerals are wildflowers that grow in early spring. They bloom quickly and then their flowers and leaves wither back into the ground. True ephemerals go through their entire growth cycle completely before the leaves are fully formed on the trees that tower above them. Some ephermerals, like twinleaf (Latin name: Jeffersonia diphylla), only bloom for a total of two days! Don't blink or you might miss their beautiful white petals!
The reason these special flowers bloom and then wither so quickly is because their access to sunlight is drastically impaired when leaves fully develop on the surrounding trees. Flowers like twinleaf and trout lily take advantage of the bare tree branches of early spring and soak up all the light they can. By the time summer rolls around, the early wildflowers are gone and the gluttonous deciduous trees can gobble up all the light they want.
Our tour guide at Eloise Butler was Kyla. An expert in weaving together history, herbalism, and botany, Kyla talked about ephemerals in a way that made the entire forest come alive before our eyes! I always assumed early spring was a more "boring" part of the growing season in Minnesota. I was wrong! The woods are anything but banal this time of year; the forest is utterly alive and enticing! Early spring is a precious, swiftly moving season … one that reveals delicate petals and stems much too sweet to miss.
The garden tour revealed that ephemerals are important teachers. They are like the wise sage instructing her students to sit and observe.
Ephemerals require their audience to pause. One must kneel or squat to visit these seasonal friends. In the midst of a societal pace that can so often feel rushed and frenetic, ephemerals whisper, "Come here. Slow down. Look."
Ephemerals are curious, graceful, quick-witted reminders that beautiful, wonderful parts of life are sometimes fleeting … but that doesn't make them any less splendid or any less worthy-of-note. There are seasons and rhythms to everything, even the daintiest flowers of the forest floor.
Early spring wildflowers are visual evidence of a truth we've all experienced: We can't make time stand still, but we can slow down and be present. We can stop and soak in whatever beauty is around us — the way the cream swirls in the coffee, the couple standing in line holding hands, those stubborn weeds that refuse to stop growing in the cracks of the driveway. These details are found in life's fleeting moments, and they are a divine gift.
After nearly 8 years in this great state, each season continues to reveal new surprises. The ephemerals are a delicious discovery, and one I will now savor every spring.