Spring Ephemerals

I spent last Saturday in Dayton, Ohio, attending a spring wildflower symposium. After the day’s events concluded, I spent a couple hours photographing wildflowers in the area. Dayton is about 150 miles south of Toledo, and so things bloom earlier down there. It’s always so hard to wait for things to bloom up here when I start seeing pictures from more southern parts of the state. But down there I got my first looks at this year’s Virginia bluebells and Dutchman’s breeches, and that got me excited about getting out to see what might be blooming up here in the northern part of the state.

Dutchman's breeches under a magnolia tree w sig
Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)  Here’s proof that fairies hang their laundry beneath magnolia trees.

So a few days ago I drove west to Goll Woods State Nature Preserve, a remnant of the black swamp forest that once covered much of northwest Ohio. Not only does Goll Woods have oaks and cottonwoods that are 200-400 years old, but it contains a magnificent cornucopia of spring wildflowers as well.

I was disappointed at first, when I couldn’t find anything blooming in the first few minutes of my walk. But as I slowed down and looked closer, I began to find single early blooms here and there.  I figured I might not get the photos I’d hoped for, but then again, this was a good opportunity to study the leaves of the soon-to-bloom wildflowers and learn to identify them before the flowers appear.

It was easy to identify trout lilies by their fish-inspired leaf patterns:

Trout Lily at Goll Woods w sig
Trout lily (Erythronium americanum)

Last year I photographed a huge swath of trout lilies, shown here:

Trout lily collage w sig

And I had just learned about waterleaf on Saturday, so it was another easy one to identify. It looks like there’s water spattered on the leaves, doesn’t it?

Virginia waterleaf w sig
This is large-leaved waterleaf (Hydrophyllum macrophyllum) – thanks to JM for the correction

Another flower I just learned about is this one, harbinger-of-spring, also known as salt-and-pepper, for obvious reasons. It’s very tiny, only a couple inches tall.

Harbinger of spring w sig
Harbinger-of-spring (Erigenia bulbosa)
Hepatica at Goll Woods w sig
Hepatica nobilis

I soon found little clumps of spring beauties and hepatica, and then a few larger clusters at the bases of trees or next to decaying logs. Hepatica is one of the earliest wildflowers to bloom, and maybe it’s able to survive the cooler temps of late winter and early spring with help from its hairy stems and leaves. I’ve sometimes found this flower by gently moving aside decaying leaf litter in March to find it tucked underneath, just waiting for an opportunity to burst forth from its winter protection and reach for the sun.

I found a small patch of bloodwort in full bloom but the bright sunlight made it hard to get a nice photo, so here’s a single alabaster bloom:

Bloodroot at Goll Woods w sig
Bloodwort (Sanguinaria canadensis)

Ephemeral - graphic for blogAll of these flowers are known as spring ephemerals, flowers that arise from the leaf litter early in spring, taking advantage of the sun before the trees get their leaves to shade them out. They bloom and then retreat back into the ground to await their next performance the following spring.

Have you noticed that we tend to celebrate things that are only around briefly? I’m thinking of the fall colors on trees, or cherry blossoms, or warblers during spring migration, and of course, spring wildflowers. And conversely, we take for granted those that are around more often. When I think of this, I’m always reminded of the time I was chatting with some birders from California who had traveled to Ohio for the spring migration. They were excitedly telling me about the cardinals they’d seen, and it renewed my appreciation for this common yet stunningly beautiful bird that lives in my backyard all year long.

And speaking of getting excited…I am geeking out over something insect-related right now.  At Goll Woods I saw my first hoverflies (aka flower flies) of the year. They were plentiful but the only species I was able to photograph was Helophilus fasciatus, the narrow-headed sunfly. Isn’t he lovely?

Narrow-headed sunfly - helophilus fasciatus - on leaves w sig
Narrow-headed sunfly (Helophilus fasciatus)

Field Guide to Flower Flies of NE N America cover imageLast fall I wrote a post about my budding obsession with these tiny but important pollinator flies that are sometimes mistaken for bees. (You can go back to that post for some background and prettier photos.)

As I was googling around to confirm my identification and refresh my memory from last year, I stumbled upon this new book. Several months ago someone told me this book was going to be published soon, but I’d totally forgotten about it. I just pre-ordered it and it’ll be here in a few short weeks, and I’ll finally have a resource to help me identify these little cuties. I’m trying hard to restrain my excitement as I write this, but I am oh so geeked right now!

P.S. You can be sure there’s going to be more talk of hoverflies here in the very near future.


  1. I love learning so much of what you write about, Kim. Would you share what model of camera and lens you had on your trip to Galapagos? Is that the camera you use most of the time? Do you switch to a macro lens for things like the ephemera above? I love those sweet little salt and pepper flowers 💕


    • I’m so glad you enjoy reading about stuff I find interesting, Ardys. As for the camera gear, I use a Canon 7D Mark II. Most of the Galapagos shots were done with my 100-400mm lens. When I shoot wildflowers, I often do use a 100mm macro lens, but also a 55-250mm lens at times. And even my cell phone camera occasionally!

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  2. So nice to see and read about your beautiful finds, Kim! I wish I had more growing where I am, but so far I only have Dutchman’s Breeches, Spring Beauty, and Dame’s Rocket. You are welcome to see them when you are out my way. There’s also lots of waterleaf foliage.


    • Thanks, Judy. I’ll have to stop by sometime soon to see your garden. (By the way, I noticed your Turk’s cap lilies beginning to poke up from the soil in my garden yesterday!) I think we’ll see lots more ephemerals blooming here in about a week. I just hope we get some rain-free days to enjoy them. 🙂


  3. I have been much too busy working around our place to go on my usual hike to the river to check out spring wildflowers. Already the stick-tight plant varieties are popping up (which I call weeds!) but they too have their appeal with pretty little flowers. Our place has been in full bloom with fruit trees and shrubs, and the insects have been busy! I got into a bit of trouble while mowing a little too close to our purple-leaf redbud trees this year. Apparently the bumble bees were busy within the flowering branches, and the noise of the mower rousted them up and I was sent on my way without managing to cut the grass in those areas. I’ve noticed more bumble bees than usual this year. I find them quite interesting.


    • Lori, I hope you find some time to check out your wildflowers before they’re gone. I know you’d find something interesting to share, as you always do. I also find bees interesting, and am starting to learn more about them and other pollinators as I expand my native plant garden. I’ve read that bumblebees are especially good at pollinating things like strawberries and tomatoes, and the plants can produce bigger and better fruits with their help. They do something called “buzz pollination,” in which they vibrate their bodies against the stamen to shake the pollen loose. Then their extremely hairy bodies carry it to the next flower. I love learning details like that, don’t you?

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