Chestnut Herbal School

Spring Ephemerals and Elaiosomes

Bloodroot - Sanguinaria canadensis, Papaveraceae

Spring ephemerals are perennial wildflowers that take advantage of the early spring sunlight reaching the forest floor. When the temperatures begin to rise in early spring these wildflowers grow quickly, flowering, setting seed, and dying back to their root system when the canopy begins to fill out. Once the trees are fully leafed out, the spring ephemerals are enjoying the quiet, subterranean lifestyle (as next spring’s seed bank or as dormant root systems). No oppressive heat and humidity for these summer-shirkers. They live fast and die young, so to speak (except you might say they are “dormant young”, but that’s not quite as catchy). Trillium, spring beauty, squirrel corn, dutchman’s breeches, trout lily, toothwort, wood anemone, and shooting star are some examples of spring ephemerals.

Yellow toadshade, Trillium luteum, Trilliaceae

Trout lily, Erythronium sp., Liliaceae

Many of our native spring flowering plants have evolved with ants in an interesting seed dspersal relationship. Trillium, bloodroot, dutchman’s breeches, trout lily, wild ginger, violets, hepatica, bleeding heart and squirrel corn are a sampling of plants involved in ant mutualism. These plants have an extra appendage on their seed called an elaiosome; it often appears as a white or translucent blob or little Mohawk. The elaiosome is a rich nutritious treat for the ant, who gladly gathers the seed, and being a social creature, takes its booty home to share with its sweet little larval brethren. After the ants eat the elaiosome, they discard the seed in their trash heap, which is no Miami dump, mind you. It is a nutrient-rich, well aerated, and loose-soiled plant haven.

Elaiosomes (the white appendage on the end of these purple dead nettle seeds)

If you want to watch this interesting seed dispersal in action, lie down next to some flowering purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum, Lamiacaeae) and watch the ants flock to the seed capsules, then catch one retreating from the plant and look for its seed cargo. If you have a hand lens or magnifying lens, you are in for an even bigger treat. I recommend corralling some kids into observing this Lilliputian dance of ant and seed mutualism, as it satisfies their natural urge to spy, along with fascination for the miniature. Plus, who isn’t interested in elaiosomes? In a random survey conducted with everyday Americans, 93% said they would rather watch ants disperse seeds than watch the Super Bowl.

Yellow toadshade, Trillium luteum, Trilliaceae

The southern Appalachian Mountains have the highest diversity of woodland wildflowers in North America. Many factors give rise to this high level of biodiversity: a moderate climate, rich soil born of ancient mountains, and varied microclimates created by diverse topography. During the last glacial period the flora of the southern mountains was protected from the permafrost by its latitude and cradling coves. This protection gave the flora millions of years to evolve new species. The southern mountains also hosted its fleeing northern neighbors during the last ice age, and when the glaciers retreated many northern species stayed put in the mild southern hills. Green carpetbaggers, they are often called in my neighborhood. For example, there are 30 species of Trillium found in the southern Appalachians, with only four species in the northern Appalachians. It’s a great time to get out into the woods and catch those spring ephemerals while you can!

Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis, Papaveraceae

Squirrel corn, Dicentra canadensis, Fumariaceae

13 thoughts on “Spring Ephemerals and Elaiosomes

  1. I love spring ephemerals, spring beauty being my personal favorite. I also just happened to be picking purple dead nettle on Tuesday, and was wondering why there were so many ants on them. Thanks for providing the answer.

    Also just want to echo other people’s comments on the quality of the photography.

  2. I think “live fast and go dormant young” sounds exciting ~ much more exciting than dying young! I wonder what some of these plants’ lifespans can be!?!

  3. What is the source for that statistic about Super Bowl viewing?? Sounds suspect 😛
    Wondering if I disperse elaiosomes in my kitchen, will the ants that are now scurrying around my countertops finally find the booty they desire and skeedaddle?

    • Meesh, perhaps you could hire the same independent poling company to take an informal survey of the ants in your kitchen – do you prefer elaiosomes or kitchen crumbs? Or maybe more economically, you could conduct your own experiment, shaking out dead nettle seeds on the counter next to bread crumbs and observe the ants preferences 🙂

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