Spring Ephemerals and Fairy Sightings in Connecticut
By Candace Kearney, Wild Rose Landscape Design of CT www.wildrosedesignct.com
For those who have eyes to see such things, it is well known that fairy sightings are most frequently reported in spring when the woodland ephemerals come into bloom.
Why this is so, no one really knows. Perhaps shedding some light upon the ephemeral will help provide an answer.
A woodland ephemeral is a plant that goes through its entire life cycle – sprouting, flowering and reproducing, and going dormant – before the leaves sprout on the trees in spring. In that way these plants take advantage of the early spring sun, before the woodland canopy develops, plunging the forest floor into shade for the rest of the season. Perhaps it is the shy and fleeting nature of these ephemeral plants that attract the fairies – they feel a kindred spirit - or maybe it is the welcome sight of these fresh woodland harbingers that produces an irresistible kind of energy that the fairies can’t resist. Humans certainly feel this energy in spring, and how much more sensitive are these tiny winged creatures than we?
On a few days in spring, determined to catch some fairy photos to quiet the skeptics, I hid with my camera and waited. My patience and quiet paid off, as I obtained the following proof that fairies do indeed, like ephemerals:
The first photo I caught was of the Common Copperwing fairy, raking back winter leaves from around a Symplocarpus foetidus, commonly known as eastern skunk cabbage.
The eastern skunk cabbage is native to eastern North America, from Nova Scotia and southern Quebec west to Minnesota, and south to North Carolina and Tennesee.
It flowers early in the spring when only the flowers are visible above the mud. The flowers are produced on a 2-4” long spadix (a fleshy, club-like spike) contained within a spathe, (a leaf-like bract that encloses a spadix) that is 4–6” tall and mottled purple in color. Eastern skunk cabbage is notable for its ability to generate temperatures of up to 27–63 °F above air temperature by cellular respiration in order to melt its way through frozen ground. Even though it flowers while there is still snow and ice on the ground, it is successfully pollinated by early insects that also emerge at this time. The generated heat that allows the plant to grow in icy soil may also help to spread its odor in the air. Carrion-feeding insects that are attracted by the scent may be encouraged to enter the spathe because it is warmer than the surrounding air, fueling pollination.
The eastern skunk cabbage is native to eastern North America, from Nova Scotia and southern Quebec west to Minnesota, and south to North Carolina and Tennessee.grows downward, not upward. Each year, the plant grows deeper into the earth, so that older plants are practically impossible to dig up. They reproduce by hard, pea-sized seeds which fall in the mud and are carried away by animals or by floods.
The next photo shows another Copperwing, this time buzzing around an
Erythronium americanum, commonly known by a several different names, such as
Yellow trout-lily, American trout-lily, Eastern trout-lily, Yellow dogtooth violet or Adder's tongue.
This colony-forming perennial sends up two, 3-6”, elliptic, maroon-mottled leaves and a taller stalk bearing a single, nodding, yellow flower. The petals and sepals arch backwards, exposing six brown stamens. Single-leaved, non-flowering plants also occur, either too young or too crowded to flower. They create a spotted carpet over the forest floor. The common name (Dogtooth Violet) refers to the tooth-like shape of the white underground bulb. The name Trout Lily (a more suitable name since the flower is not a Violet) refers to the similarity between the leaf markings and those of the brown or brook trout. It is found from southern Ontario to Georgia, west to Kentucky, Missouri, and Oklahoma, and north to Minnesota. From the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
My most exciting photo catch was the sighting of a juvenile male Northern Woodland fairy, not too common in CT these days. His wing colors have not yet grown into their glory as they will when he is older. He is no doubt basking in the presence of the last of the season’s Houstonia caerulea, better known as Bluets, but also sometimes called Quaker Ladies, or Innocence. This small, delicate perennial is found growing in 8” high compact tufts. Tiny flowers are pale blue with yellow centers, tubular, four-petaled and solitary. Spatula-shaped leaves occur in basal rosettes. Stem leaves are small and the stems do not branch. Bluet occurs in fields and open woods from South Dakota east to Maryland and south to Florida and Texas.
Bluets enchant more than just the Northern Woodland fairy, as evidenced by the work of this poet:
The Bluet - Ted Kooser
Of all the flowers, the bluet has the sweetest name, two syllables that form on the lips, then fall with a tiny, raindrop splash into a suddenly bluer morning.
I offer you mornings like that, fragrant with tiny blue blossoms - each with four petals, each with a star at its heart. I would give you whole fields of wild perfume if only
you could be mine, if you were not - like the foolish bluet (also called Innocence) - always holding your face to the fickle, careless, fly-by-kiss of the Clouded Sulphur Butterfly.
A Copperwing in a pretty blue dress visits a Maianthemum canadense, also known as Canada Mayflower or False Lily of the Valley. The purpose of the globe she carries is unknown to me, but I suspect it is a crystal ball of some sort that she is charging with the energy of the ephemeral; further advancing my theory that the ephemerals give off some kind of energy that the fairies like. The Latin name, Maianthemum, means May blossom. A low plant, only 3-6” tall, Mayflower blankets woodlands with its shiny, oval leaves. In bloom, tiny, white flowers are held in upright clusters on separate, delicate stems. The fruit is a small, pale red berry. This common forest herb spreads by rhizomes and frequently forms carpet-like colonies. An unusual member of the Lily Family, it has only 2 petals, 2 sepals (sterile, modified leaves), and 4 stamens (the male fertilizing organ of a flower). It is found in wet, boggy, woodsy or mossy areas from New Jersey west to Minnesota and north into Canada.
A short while later I caught this same fairy, or one like her, among a bed of woodland anemone, Latin name . Anemone quinquefolia.
If you have a shady spot in your yard, you too can attract these fairies with an ephemerals garden of your very own. Garden centers do sell these shy plants, and it is best when they are tucked in among other shade-tolerant perennials such as hosta, astilbe, fern and columbine, as the ephemerals will disappear after they are done blooming, returning next year in early spring.
If you would like a shade and ephemerals garden, contact me, Candace Kearney of Wild Rose Landscape Design of CT. In fact, feel free to contact me for all your garden design needs, including stunning curb appeal design, pool- and patio-scapes, potager gardens, “historical” gardens and water features – all designed with beauty, artistry and functionality in mind. For landscape design that is a cut above the rest, visit my website at www.wildrosedesignct.com for contact information.