Ephemeral. I love that word. As an adjective it means short-lived. As a noun, it refers to organisms with short lifespans. I remember the exact moment I learned the word. Second semester Biology, spring of 1976… must have been right about this time of year. My professor told us that we should take a walk after class through College Park to view the ephemerals. He was referring to the woodland wildflowers which have an interesting adaptation for survival: short lifespans. If you live on the forest floor and require sunlight for photosynthesis, you had better hurry up and photosynthesize while you can. It won’t be long before the leaves in the canopy above you block that life-giving sun.
In 1976, I wasn’t all that interested in wildflowers. I was interested in boys, though. So I turned to the rather good-looking boy sitting next to me and asked, “Would you like to go for a walk after class to look for ephemerals?” He said, “Yes.”
The only flower I remember seeing is the one I already had a name for: narcissus. Surely we must have seen others. But my lack of interest in flowers coupled with the distraction provided by the handsome boy caused me not to remember any of them.
Over the next few weeks, this boy and I walked several times in the woods, travelled to a Pennsylvania college to visit a friend of mine, and attended a Bruce Springsteen concert. Then it was over. Our relationship was nearly as ephemeral as the spring wildflowers that prompted our first “date.” I don’t know whatever happened to him, but the word “ephemeral” is still with me.
Recently, over the last five years or so, I’ve taken to tramping the woods every spring to see the ephemerals – with or without a handsome companion. I notice many more flowers now than I did as a college student. They’re becoming dear old friends with names, ephemeral, yet enduring… returning every spring. Sometimes summer-fall-winter erases their names from my memory and I have to check a field guide to remember. Others have become so much a part of me that I can even recognize them from the first sprouting of new leaves.
Trout Lily, for example, has leaves with purple spots. I suppose it got its name because the speckled leaves resemble the markings on the fish. Trout Lily loves to grow in colonies of twelve to hundreds of plants in rich woods. In some of the places where I walk, it covers large expanses of the forest floor. When it eventually gets flowers, the bloom hangs its head down toward the forest floor making it very hard to photograph. In fact, I don’t have a good picture of the bloom… yet… but this year, I intend to get one!
Yesterday, I snapped another couple of favorites while walking at Long Point State Park. There were so many familiar friends that were still just buds, but two were in bloom: Bloodroot and Dutchman’s Breeches.
Bloodroot. Apparently, there is a blood red juice that can be extracted from the “root” (actually the rhizome) of this flower that was used by native Americans as body paint. I love the way the leaf hugs the stem of the flower when it first emerges in spring. When the flower has faded, the leaves will continue to grow – sometimes as large as eight inches across.
On Earth Day, there were a couple of plants blooming at Audubon. The flower is quite lovely with many white petals and yellow in the center. (I went back the next morning to try out my Reverse Lens technique on the blooms, but it appeared someone had eaten the flowers… bunnies perhaps?)
Dutchman’s Breeches. This is actually the first year I have found this plant. Don’t know how I missed it… except… well… it is ephemeral and perhaps I just wasn’t out when it was blooming? It has funny little flowers that resemble tiny pairs of pants hung out to dry. The leaves are beautiful – an interesting shade of bluish green and so lacey – almost like a fern. I think next year, I’ll recognize this one by early leaves!
Stay tuned to my blog and I’ll keep posting the Ephemerals as I’m able to… So many were in bud yesterday, who knows what I’ll find today?