Welcome the Spring Ephemerals


By Elena Day

Mertensia virginica, the Virginia bluebell
Mertensia virginica, the Virginia bluebell

April, with its weather surprises, has been termed “the cruelest month.” It is also the beginning of the spring flower display that will peak in May. The goal for this flower gardener is to have ever-present bloom and lots of it. Unfortunately, I’ve never had success with the regal tulips, Thomas Jefferson’s “favorite and most successful flower, ” which begin their show later in April. I cannot stop the squirrels from digging up the bulbs and eating them.

I recommend planting such bulbs as snowdrops, which begin blooming in January, and the lovely yellow winter aconites, which bloom in February (Winter aconites bloomed in March this year). Both snowdrops and especially winter aconites naturalize readily in lawns. In the United States expanses of lawns can be so boring, more so in the winter months. The aconites make the honey bees happy on those warmer late winter days.

Purple and white crocuses and the peacock blue Chionodaxa or “glory of the snow” bloom next and these, too, naturalize and spread in lawns.

In shadier areas under trees a choice plant is the Lenten rose or Hellebores orientalis, which might flower as early as February. More hellebore hybrids are marketed because of the rising popularity of this genus.

I established my hellebores, both white and pink-flowered, by digging up tiny seedlings from established colonies of friends. It took a couple years to get a blooming plant but it beat spending $15 to $20 at a nursery. Currently I seek to add maroon-flowering hellebores.  The Hellebores foetida or stinking hellebore (it does have an unpleasant odor) has clusters of green flowers and is taller than the H. orientalis. H. foetida looks great in a bouquet with daffodils or a red amaryllis bloom.

April is the month for spring ephemerals, plantings of which can bring great delight to one’s backyard. Ephemerals are woodland plants that appear briefly, bloom, reproduce and then disappear, often within two months or less. I’m most fond of Mertensia virginica, the Virginia bluebell. Locally, the Rivanna River’s banks are blue with bluebells in April. Virginia bluebells do well in moist woods and dappled shade but will grow in full sun. Other ephemerals that bring diversity into the shadier landscape include blue woodland phlox, Trout lilies, May apples, the very overlooked Virginia waterleaf, trilliums and Dutchman’s breeches. The flowers of the last resemble upside down pantaloons that are slightly inflated. Keep in mind that it takes seven years for Trout lilies seeds to flower.

I cannot stop this ode to early spring plants without mentioning “Old Sulphur Yellow” primroses. These 17th century British hybrids are believed to have been grown in American gardens since colonial times. I was given a clump 15 or so years ago from the garden of a friend whose grandmother had planted them down Scottsville way. Every few years individual plants clump themselves up into a colony. The flowers are yellow and stand high above the foliage.

Jane Heyward’s garden at Foxhaven Farm, now owned by U.Va. (the property lies just west of the Fontaine Research Park), is on the Garden Week tour this year. U.Va. is maintaining the garden, although I fear some cultivars (old roses), have been lost. Jane wanted her garden to be the center of an arboretum or botanical garden for the University.

Foxhaven’s garden contains mature specimens of trees, shrubs and perennials. It continues to be a garden in an understated style and a place of calming beauty.

I learned a lot and it wasn’t only the importance of ongoing bloom and decreased lawn acreage from Mrs. Jane Heyward. I look forward to Garden Week at Foxhaven.


  1. Try putting chicken wire over the top of your tulip bulbs in fall. The squirrely guys cannot get their paws around the bulbs through the wire and this works every season with my garden. In the spring the bulbs grow through the wire and you won’t see it once it rusts anyhow. Let me know if this works.


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