Ephemeral Spring

It’s not just delicate wildflowers that are temporary.

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ILLUSTRATIONS BY LINDA COOK DEVONA

A couple of Februarys ago, I had rotator cuff surgery on my right shoulder. People told me that hip surgery is the easiest to recover from, knee surgery next easiest, and shoulder surgery the hardest. Hardest or not, it certainly was the longest—I wasn’t fully good to go until that July.

But I gained one great gift from the experience (in addition to—yay!—getting a functional shoulder again): I finally got to see Spring.

I’ve always admired the way Spring flows in like a slowly swelling tide—from plumping buds and the first peek-a-booing of little shoots all the way to the week when the trees all turn the same shade of green and lock the woods for summer. I’ve always wanted to observe every degree of the season’s arrival. But who has (i.e., ever makes) the time?

Well, finally I did. With my arm in a sling, I couldn’t do any of my normal physical activities Gardening? Paddling? No, no, no. But I could walk. I found a nice, two-mile loop hike that went around Tater Knob, the mountain next to my house, and walked it pretty much every day.

So, yes, I got to see Spring spring! I admired the life cycle of trilliums. I watched the hillsides take on the faintest hints of tints, brighten with brushstrokes of pastels, then flash an array of green hues. I saw it happen.

This past Spring, I decided to take it another step. I love Spring ephemerals, those delicate woodland wildflowers that sprout, bloom, and fade before the trees fully leaf out. They live their lives in that short span of time when the weather’s warming and sunlight’s still striking the forest floor (hence the name ephemeral). They’re so varied, so delicate—and so beautiful. I’ve always wanted to take the time to hike enough different woods to discover as many ephemerals as possible.

Then one day, while hiking a beautiful moss-banked creek, I hit the ephemeral mother lode.

Even their names are enchanting! I mean, who can resist wanting to see:

Rue Anemone. Trailing Arbutus. Sweet Cicely. Squirrel Corn. Dutchman’s Breeches. Foamflower. Lily of the Valley. Solomon’s Seal. Fairy Wand. Pussy Toes.

And that’s just a few of the white ones! Start in on the more colorful blooms and you get:

Trout Lily. Sun Drops. Yellow Mandarin. Meadow Parsnip. Little Brown Jug. Climbing Fumitory. Pink Lady Slipper. Halberd-Leaved Violet. Virginia Waterleaf. Rose Twisted-Stalk (wasn’t she a crippled princess in some Disney cartoon?).

And a whole host more!

So I did it. I went on six day hikes throughout our Western North Carolina region. Then one day, while exploring Bradley Fork, a beautiful, moss-banked creek in the Smoky Mountains, I hit the ephemeral mother lode. I have never been on a walk so carpeted with wildflowers. It was like a parade—only I was the one parading and the banks of wildflowers lining the trail were the crowds of spectators. Long swaths of Canada Mayflower applauded my arrival from one side, while Fringed Phalecia waved little white pom-poms from the other. Wild Geraniums wrestled with Giant Chickweed for the best view of the trail (and sunlight). Swaths of Woodland Phlox intermingled with bands of Speckled Wood Lily. Even my favorite ephemeral of all, Dwarf Crested Iris, thrust up its precious, three-stemmed purple blooms in far greater numbers than I’d ever seen.

I hiked Bradley Fork three weeks in a row that April and was overwhelmed by its beauty every time. Becky joined me once. She made our first-ever sighting of Fraser’s Sedge, with its long, straplike leaves and small white flowers dangling like fishing lures. We found and nibbled on Brook Lettuce, a seep-loving edible. We wondered how True and False Solomon’s Seal could grow next to each other.

And each week I discovered something new. Robins Plantain! Pipsissewa! Appalachian Bluet! It’s here! Now it’s gone!

When ephemerals began to fade at one altitude, I went on hikes higher up. The old naturalists say that every 1,000 feet you gain in altitude is equivalent to traveling 300 miles north. Whatever the ratio, ascending does take you back in seasonal time. When I started at 2,000 feet elevation on the climb to Ramsey Cascades, many of the spring flowers were past their prime. By the time I reached the falls at 4,300 feet, the tree leaves were as tiny and delicate as the flowers below them!

It was a grand series of excursions to my favorite garden of all: Mother Nature’s. And here’s the point. What motivated me to finally take time out from life’s ongoing busy-ness, throw my guide-books and lunch in a pack, and head out, day after day?

The thought that, at age 69, I’d better not waste any more time. After all, the ultimate Spring ephemeral…is me.

This article was published originally in 2019, in GreenPrints Issue #117.


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