Every year, many people look forward to the start of spring, not only because of the warmer temperatures and longer days, but because of the fleeting appearance of spring ephemerals scattered around the landscape.
The term “spring ephemeral” is given to a wildflower that appears early in the spring and is flowering for a very limited period of time. The time period can range anywhere from a few weeks to only a few days. Spring ephemerals are usually found growing in forested areas and can most easily be spotted along the trails. Since forests can be really shady later in the spring and during the summer, the early emergence of these wildflowers allows them to take advantage of the light penetrating to the forest floor, before the trees get their leaves back.
Spring ephemerals can have some really interesting life history strategies. One of our favourites is seed dispersal by ants! Many common spring ephemerals like Bloodroot, Liverwort, and Trillium, have special seeds that have elaiosomes; a fleshy external seed appendage that is rich in oils and proteins. These elaiosomes attract foraging worker ants to the plants.
The ants collect the seeds and relocate them to their nests. These incredible insects will then separate the elaiosomes from the seeds in order to feed themselves or their larvae. Once the elaiosomes have been eaten, the seeds are left behind, underground or outside of the nest, to grow into a new spring ephemeral. This process is a mutualistic interaction – meaning both the plants and the ants benefit.
On your next visit to High Park this season, keep an eye out for spring ephemerals growing on the forest floor!