• Spring’s Ephemerals in the Sierra foothills

    by  • February 25, 2011 • CA natives, Plant Profiles

     My idea of gardening is to discover something wild in my wood and weed around it with the utmost care until it has a chance to grow and spread.
    – Margaret Bourke-White

    Covered with the greenest and freshest grass, the open woodland is where the earliest wildflowers of Spring spread their wealth of ephemeral loveliness. The leaves of California native ephemerals are already appearing in mid-February in the Sierra foothills, like expected friends, rarely seen.

    Pretty Face, Triteleia ixioides

    Pretty Face, Triteleia ixioides

    Good morning, sunshine
    ‘Spring ephemeral’ describes a life cycle of perennial woodland wildflowers which develop stems, leaves, and flowers early each Spring and then quickly bloom, go to seed and die back to roots, or bulbs for the rest of the year. This scheme is very common in deciduous forests as it allows small plants to take advantage of the high amount of sunlight reaching the forest floor prior to the leafing out of taller plants.

    In A Natural History of California, Allan A. Schoenherr says,
    “During a single growing season, ephemeral or annual plants germinate from seeds and complete their growth and flowering in time to set seed, which is also a strategy of desert plants. Accomplishing an entire life cycle in less than one year requires abundant sunlight.”

    You will find these short-lived beauties in open ground and under deciduous trees and shrubs. They survive by taking advantage of the Spring sunshine, blooming, and ultimately completing their month, or two month, appearance before the woodland trees cast shade and while water is still available.


    Elegant Brodiaea, Brodiaea elegans, with Helichrysum, 'Icicles'

    Elegant Brodiaea, Brodiaea elegans, with Helichrysum, ‘Icicles’

    Late Winter signs of Spring
    Developing in late winter, the thin round stems of Pretty Face, Triteleia ixioides, and Brodiaea, Brodiaea elegans, are 5 inches tall already, getting covered with snow after snow in the Winter chill.  These precious perennials bloom, hovering eight inches above the ground with an airy layer of deep blue and soft yellow.

    Valley tassels, Castilleja lineariloba

    Valley tassels, Castilleja lineariloba


    Valley tassels, up at the street in a wet year!

    Valley tassels, up at the street in a wet year!

    Triggered by the warming soil, they rapidly send up foliage, blossom, set seed, and usually disappear in six to eight weeks — all before summer starts. These two naturalize easily if the bulbs are undisturbed and not choked with weeds.  Allowing the natural leaf litter to remain will discourage weeds.

    Rose Globe Lily Calochortus amoenus

    Rose Globe Lily, Calochortus amoenus    Blooms are less than an inch long

    Two favorites hide themselves, waiting to be discovered. Rose globe lilies with their pendulous pink blooms and Shooting stars with swept-back, seemingly wind-blown flowers pointed with dark tips, are rare and therefore treasured. Neighbors compete, pridefully pointing out the earliest Shooting stars in their gardens.

    Other ephemerals in the Sierra foothill garden:
    Blue Dicks, Dichelostemma capitatum
    California Golden Violet, Viola pedunculata
    Elegant Brodiaea, Brodiaea elegans
    Hooker’s Evening Primrose, Oenothera elata hookeri
    Mariposa or Butterfly Lily, Calochortus venustus
    Miner’s lettuce, Claytonia perfoliata
    Miniature lupine, Lupinus bicolor
    Owl’s Clover or Valley Tassels, Castilleja lineariloba
    Pretty Face, Triteleia ixioides
    Rose Globe or Fairy Lily, Calochortus amoenus
    Shooting Star, Dodecatheon jeffreyi

    Miner's lettuce Claytonia perfoliata

    Miner’s lettuce, Claytonia perfoliata, is crisp and delicious in salads. These round leaves are 1/2 inch wide.

    Here, then gone
    The word, ephemeral, derives from the Greek ephemerios, ‘lasting one day’. In many cases, in late Spring or early summer, it’s as if the plants have disappeared because no top growth is visible.  The roots and tiny bulbs, however, are storing up sugars for a performance next year.  To keep track of where spring ephemerals are growing in your garden, combine them with low growing companion plants, which act as markers and then provide a transition to summer.

    Some companion marker plants:
    Blue-eyed grass, Sisyrinchium bellum
    Helichrysum petiolare ‘Moe’s Silver’
    Helichrysum thianschanicum ‘Icicles’
    Golden Oregano, Origanum vulgare auream  ‘Gold’
    Pacific stonecrop, Sedum spathulifolium
    Sweet Violet, Viola odorata
    Western Columbine, Aquilegia formosa
    Wood Fern, Dryopteris arguta

    Ephemeral sprouts, Brodiaea and Pretty Face, in February

    Five inch high ephemeral sprouts, Brodiaea and Pretty Face, in February

    This sudden flash of ephemeral beauty is but a promise of Spring to come. Each day will bring more blooms and new discoveries.

    For more on existing California native ephemerals growing in my garden, and more photos, see Ephemerals and Wildflowers.


    Sue Langley, a passionate gardener and photographer lives and gardens with her husband and Corgi, Maggie on 7 acres just south of Yosemite, Zone 7 at 3000 feet. She also manages the Flea Market Gardening Facebook page and website.