The Ephemeral Season

March 19, 2015  |  Permalink

It is spring ephemeral season again. That time of the year when wildflowers rush to grow, bloom and store energy for another year. These plants start growing as soon as the days get long enough and the soil temperature is warm enough. They have to get everything done before the trees and shrubs above them fully leaf out and close the canopy. This brings to a close another growing season for the ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ spring ephemerals.

It all starts in late February when the earliest native species sprout in the winter woods. One of the first to be seen is the Harbinger of Spring, a member of the carrot family. Soon there are Toothwort, Wake Robin Trilliums and Spring Beauty plants joining the harbinger. The Toothwort actually has separate over wintering leaves that have an anti-freeze chemical to keep them green during the freezing temperatures. The chemical gives the leaves a purple color on the underside. Toothwort winter leaves were used as a winter vegetable by Native Americans and have a Horseradish flavor.

As March goes on several more ephemerals cover the forest floor. One of my favorites is the Trout Lily.

I like to eat one of the first leaves I see each year. This has become something of a spring tradition with me. The early leaves of the Trout Lily are good. It is in the same family as onions and garlic and has an onion like texture. When the leaves get fully mature and the plants are in flower, I would not recommend tasting them because they develop an unpleasant after taste.

As April arrives in the floodplains and other moist areas you may be lucky enough to see Virginia Bluebells. This showy and fragile plant is a classic example of an ephemeral. It is up in March and is gone by late April.

Every week during this season there seems to be a new set of plants taking their turn, getting their work done while they can. There is no better time to take a walk in the woods than the spring ephemeral season.


Tennessee State Parks offer a variety of activites and programs to suit all ages and interests. Guided hikes led by experienced naturalists, photographer seminars, bird hikes and other rewarding spring activities can all be found on the Tennessee State Park Event Calendar. Be sure to like our Facebook page for all the latest news and happenings. 

About the author

Randy Hedgepath

Tennessee State Naturalist Randy Hedgepath is a native of west Tennessee, where his family’s farm was just 15 miles from the Tennessee River. After graduating from UT Martin and working seasonally for several years for the National Park Service and Tennessee State Parks, he has spent the last 33 years with state parks. Randy worked as a ranger/naturalist at South Cumberland State Park on the Cumberland Plateau and at Radnor Lake Natural Area in Nashville until 2007 when he was given the opportunity to be the statewide naturalist for the state park system.