Spring Ephemerals in the Park

Dutchman's breeches

By Maria DeLaundreau, MN GreenCorps

Forest plants are always competing for light. This sounds like a simple concept, but beneath the surface there is a complex challenge that plants address in many ways. Canopy trees address it by trying to grow taller than the other trees. Understory trees and shrubs grow tall to avoid competing with the smaller plants below and adapt to being shaded by taller trees. It takes a lot of energy and resources to be free-standing and strong enough to ascend toward the canopy. Vines circumvent this problem by taking advantage of other plants that invested in height and strength; it simply climbs up them as it reaches for sun. Most of the other plants accept that they will be shaded by towering woody plants, adapt to little light, and compete with plants their own size. Spring ephemerals found a way to beat the system.

Spring ephemerals pop out of the ground very early in the spring, some do so even when snow is still present, and do a whole year’s worth of growing and flowering before the trees above them leaf out. Once the trees’ leaves emerge the above-ground portion of spring ephemerals die and the underground part goes into dormancy. This strategy ensures that these plants will only be growing when they have access to the sunlight they need to produce flowers and store enough energy in the roots to support the plant in dormancy until it reawakens the following spring.

White trout lilies are a common spring ephemeral. They are so named because their green leaves have a mottled purple pattern that is reminiscent of trout scales. 

White trout lily

Dwarf trout lily

While white trout lily is common, its cousin, the dwarf trout lily , is extremely rare and endangered. This plant looks very similar to the white trout lily. The most distinctive characteristic is the comparably diminutive size of the flowers. The dwarf trout lily is thought to have evolved from the white trout lily about 13, 000 years ago just after the last glaciers retreated. It is found only in Minnesota, and within Minnesota natural populations exist within only three counties. It is Minnesota’s only plant on the federal endangered species list.

Cut-leaved toothwort is another common spring ephemeral that is named for its beautiful lacey leaves.

Cut-leaved toothwort

Other early-blooming plants utilize a similar strategy, but instead of dying back as the trees regain their full foliage, they keep their leaves and add to their energy reserves throughout the summer growing season. Flowering and setting seed requires a lot of energy from plants, so it makes sense to bloom when the most sunlight and energy are available. 

Let’s look at some spring-blooming flowers that can be found right here in the Twin Cities.

Bloodroot is a beautiful spring flower that gets its name from its red sap.


Wild ginger can grow densely on moist forest soils.

Wild ginger

Nodding trillium appears to hide its shy flower beneath its leaves.

Nodding trillium

The Missouri violet, common blue violet, and downy yellow violet are common flowers of the forest floor.

Missouri violet
Common blue violet
Downy yellow violet

Marsh marigold is prolific in areas with wet soil. It can be found growing along drainages, and along ponds. It often shares its habitat with skunk cabbage.

Marsh marigold
Skunk cabbage (left) and march marigold (right)

Skunk cabbage  has evolved to draw insects that normally feed on carrion. Its mottled brown or purple flowers and repugnant odor resemble decaying flesh and this resemblance attracts flies and other insect pollinators. It also has an amazing ability to produce heat, averaging 20 degrees above the temperature outside. This flower often emerges when there is still snow on the ground and melts it.

Skunk cabbage flower

Jack-in-the-pulpit is another gorgeous spring flower that attracts insects into its unusual flower to pollinate it .


Spring is a great time to go on a flower scavenger hunt. There are many more flowers blooming than I mentioned here. Can you find false rue anemone? Large-flowered bellwort? How about white trillium? What flowers have you found in the park that are blooming? Share your finds in the comments below!