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Ramblings of a native plant gardener: Rising into Spring


My pre-teen grandkids came to visit, after a four-month lapse. They’ve leaped into adolescence, speaking of slow dances, a boy’s glance across the room, overnights with girlfriends, and lots of Taylor Swift and Rihanna. Spring has arrived in their DNA.

So, too, I celebrate this life rising fresh and new. Out of leaf decay and in the dappled light, ephemerals are raising flower heads into crisp blue skies. Many, such as Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) and squirrel corn (Dicentra canadensis), are covering the forest floor with new blossoms. They’re the superfoods of the flower world; small plants stuffed with nutrients sought by pollinators, hungry after winter hibernation.

In this dance of attraction, some plants have particular partners. Trout lilies (Erythronium americanum) and miner bees are one example. The flower, sometimes called a “dog toothed violet,” rises from a single stem above flat speckled leaves. Left undisturbed, these upside-down lilies spread throughout hardwood forests, creating a fairy-like floor of pale yellows and white. Although colonized by rhizomes, trout lilies insure their survival through pollination. Miner bees, or “fairy bees,” stay close to the ground, marking their territory and protecting their food source.

Attraction is also in the air between Virginia blue bells (Mertensia virginia) and bumblebees. These are bright blue flowers that droop together on a single stem. Bees, butterflies, and hummingbird moths flock to the easy footholds in these bell-shaped flowers. Blue bells grow about two feet tall. They are well-paired with bleeding hearts (Lamprocapnos spectabilis) and celandine poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum), also called wood poppy, making splashes of primary colors of blue, yellow, and red.

Blue bells are considered endangered in the wild, in part because of habitat loss. As “useless land” is developed, much is lost. We who grow indigenous plants feel a special affinity for these forgotten landscapes.

The Jack-in-the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is an elusive spring ephemeral with a flower that looks like a person standing in a pulpit. It changes gender as it matures, starting out male and then switching to female, once it’s matured. Exuding a faint scent that attracts fungus gnats, these pollinators sacrifice their life to this plant. The gnats fly in and out of the male, but once they land in the female flower, they can’t get out. A brief but happy life, we hope, for a spring dalliance.

Eventually the Jack-in-the-pulpit creates bright red berries which are sown by birds and other animals. All of this plant is toxic, except the berries, which gives the Jacks a great defense against predators. These plants like to move around, so I have found them in our meadow, under ferns near our driveway, and across the road as well. Once my neighbor tried to protect them from mowing. He put up signs up and down the road. The mowers came anyway. Now flood mitigation is at work, so there’s a ditch where the Jacks used to live. I am waiting to see what happens next.

I first saw bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) along the Delaware Canal path. Its name comes from its red root, which the Native peoples used for treating gastrointestinal or skin conditions. The root has a sap with antiseptic properties. Some articles report it is good for poison ivy, and others say it was used for dye. In large doses, leaves and stem are poisonous to both humans and animals, which gives it protection from herbivores. WebMD warns against many purported uses, but skilled indigenous healers have used it for centuries.

Bloodroot has a white multi-petaled flower that lies almost flat on the ground. It opens in the day and closes at night. It is a bit temperamental. I tried three different locations before I found a spot where it slowly, ever so slowly, grows. My neighbor has a patch of bloodroot, which circles her mailbox. Once I stopped to admire the bloodroot, and my neighbor came out. “I don’t know what it is,” she said, “ but it is pretty!” I see less and less of this plant in the wild. Luckily, many native plant nurseries are selling it now, along with a variety of companion ephemerals.

These ephemerals call to me. They remind me how precious time is, how you can’t hold onto anything. Like my grandkids, they’re waving flags of youth and hope. These flowers are a bulwark against feelings of overwhelm as I contemplate this challenging world. A friend has an embroidered sign in her kitchen. “When all else fails, there is always the garden.”

Visit Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve in New Hope, or Mt. Cuba Center in New Castle, Del. You’ll see vistas of ephemerals, dancing in the gentle light.

Susan Talia Delone, PhD, a member of the Bucks County Chapter of the Woman’s National Farm & Garden Association, is a psychologist living in Buckingham. Her garden has been featured on the annual native plant garden tour offered by the organization in June.

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