Buds for Birds
Be a Buddy — Plant Native

It’s never too soon to start thinking about spring, is it? To make your dreams come true sooner rather than later, let’s talk about some of the earliest spring bloomers. Aside from having something to look forward to on dreary winter days, there are two good reasons to think about these plants early. First, flowering plants tend to fly out of nurseries when they are in bloom, and stocks may be depleted until next year. So if you want to get hold of these, you have to be ready to act fast. Second, it is usually best to plant flowering plants when they don’t have a lot of leaves and flowers to support. Planting early lets the roots settle in before the plant’s energy and water needs increase.

Spring Ephemerals

There are many native plants that bloom fairly early in spring, but only some are called spring ephemerals. “Ephemeral” in general means fleeting – lasting only a short time. For many perennial plants, the leaves and/or stalks stay visible all summer or even through the fall and winter. Spring ephemeral plants don’t literally go away, never to return, but their visible parts above ground do vanish or at least diminish after they bloom. They are inconspicuous for the rest of the season, although their roots persist and will bring you new pleasure next spring.

Because of their ephemeral nature, gardeners generally plant them along with other plants that will fill in through the rest of the summer. Make sure that your ephemerals are marked or that you have some other system for remembering where they are. Otherwise you may accidentally dig them up or plant on top of them. (If you buy them before they bloom, or after they’ve gone dormant for the season, it may look like you are buying a pot of nothing. Have faith! Keep their location protected from disturbances and they will come through in their next bloom season.)

Many spring ephemerals are naturally found in woodland settings, where they take advantage of the sunlight that filters through before the trees and shrubs leaf out. For this reason, many of them like part-shade and rich, somewhat moist but well-drained soils. They are a great way to bring beauty to shadier parts of your garden. They are also an important early nectar source for bees, moths, and butterflies.

Here are just a few of the many possibilities. The ones discussed here are relatively easily grown and relatively available (but you will still need to visit a native plant nursery or else mail-order from a native plant source; they won’t be at a conventional nursery or big-box store).

American or round-leaved hepatica (Hepatica Americana) and Sharp-leaved or sharp-lobed hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba), blooming mid-March to mid-April

These are the very first plants to bloom in my yard each spring, with small white flowers peeking out from under a hemlock tree. It is always a treat to find the first blossom of spring! Although mine are white, they can also be found in shades of pale pink, lavender, or pale blue. The two species are very similar except for the leaf tip shape, and they used to be considered the same species.

They do naturally occur in woodland conditions and like average to rich, moist soils that don’t dry out. One pot might eventually expand to a small patch, but don’t expect these to fill in a lot of space. Think more in terms of a little treasure to enjoy here and there.


Spring Beauties

Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), blooming late March to early May

Although the hepaticas usually beat the spring beauties into bloom, spring beauty has to take the prize for lasting longest. They bloom for many weeks, from early spring well into warmer days. They are similar to hepaticas in having starry little flowers that can be white or shades of pink or lavender.

Spring beauties are more tolerant of average conditions than hepaticas, and they also are more willing to reseed and expand their presence. Mine were first planted in a corner of a bed at the edge of the lawn, and they have started popping up in the lawn. Their leaves are somewhat similar to a blade of grass and don’t disrupt the grass at all. I avoid mowing that bit of lawn until the flowers have gone to seed to encourage them to continue to mingle and spread in the grass. I’ve seen them in several parks sprinkled widely throughout grassy areas, and it seems like a great way to make your lawn more productive for wildlife.

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), blooming mid-April to mid-May

Unlike hepaticas and spring beauty, there is nothing subtle about Virginia bluebells. They grow about two feet tall, with broad leaves that emerge with a mauve tone and turn green as they grow. They produce bundles of tubular flowers about 1.5 or 2 inches long that are pink when closed and gradually transform to a vibrant blue as they open. They are beautiful at each stage and are a really eye-catching addition to a garden (if you have a suitable site—with rich, part-shade or shady conditions). Guaranteed to please.

Their native range is from New England into the southern states, so they can tolerate a range of temperatures. They will create gradually expanding clumps and can form large colonies over time, but they are not aggressive. Mine took a number of years before the three or so plants I started with expanded noticeably. They are said to tolerate being planted under walnuts, and they do not have high appeal to rabbits or deer.

Virginia Bluebells

Wood Poppy

Wood poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum), blooming mid-April to mid-May

To round out the color options, consider wood poppies for their bright yellow flowers. Like the Virginia bluebells, they are large enough to light up a part-shade or shady spot and provide some early cheer to the garden. I have a spot in deep shade under American arborvitae where little else has survived, and they’ve been happy there. They’ve also been happy in more average, partly-shaded garden spots, where they’ve reseeded more readily and expanded their presence.

Don’t confuse wood poppy, which is also called celandine poppy, with the non-native plants called lesser celandine and greater celandine. The latter two are highly invasive species that also have bright yellow blossoms. Lesser celandine is a low-growing plant with shiny leaves that you will see carpeting many woods in early spring. (Some people think they are buttercups.) Greater celandine is surprisingly similar to wood poppy in the size and shape of its leaf as well as the blossom, and it can also grow in large quantities in woods. Both of them massively crowd out native plants and are extremely difficult to eradicate. Don’t even think about bringing any of them or their seeds home from the woods, or you (and all the wildlife you’re trying to help) will be sorry.

What about the Birds?

My previous columns have generally featured plants that produce large amounts of fruit or seeds that birds really like. The truth is, you won’t see birds flocking to these plants in particular. But they are still part of developing a healthy home habitat for birds. They help sustain pollinators early in the spring, and pollinators are crucial to keeping other plants reproducing and producing food. Any native plant that is filling space that would otherwise be bare is also helping to provide shelter and food for other insects and other critters that may become bird food. The tubers of spring beauty, for instance, are eaten by chipmunks, which in turn are eaten by Red-tailed Hawks. Healthy habitats are made up of many complex interactions, and diversity in your landscape benefits birds indirectly if not directly.

Barbara Malt, Ph.D., Vice President of Lehigh Valley Audubon Society provided the content and images for this article