Old Ways Herbal

Vermont Herb School, Clinical Herbalist, Plant Remedies, & Herbal Farmcraft Wisdom.

Why I Don’t Pick the Flowers: Leave the Spring Ephemerals Alone

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I love this time of year: the first wildflowers’ hopeful surge to sunlight before the leaves cast shade on the forest floor, the birds’ joy in life and love as they chase each other around the edges of the yard in pursuit of the next generation, the sudden sunlight in the midst of a rainy week and the chill in the morning air and the wave of subtle color across the mountains as the buds swell on the trees.

Spring ephemerals are a hallmark of this beloved season, calling hikers to the forest on rare dry days for a glimpse of the wide variety of lyrically named early wildflowers, shocking after months of gray winter.  The trilliums are the most famous, but they’re accompanied by multitudes of others striving to procreate before the trees leaf out: harbinger of spring, dutchman’s breeches, hepatica, spring beauty, trout lily, coltsfoot, bloodroot, toothwort.  Spring ephemerals are a vivid example of the harmony of the natural world: fast growing, fast blooming flowers pop up as soon as the soil begins to warm, bud and bloom and go to seed before the slow-moving trees have darkened the forest with June’s leaf canopy, and in the process provide food for insects essential to forest health.

It’s not uncommon for folks to pick the early wildflowers, whether to press them, frame them, or to display as a bouquet–especially among those just rediscovering the natural world.  We are indoctrinated with the idea that our individual desires are harmless or beneficial to the world around us (dominion over the animals and plants, right?), which is so deeply ingrained that we often can’t see the forest for the trees, so to speak.  Spring ephemerals are not there for our appreciation alone.  I check on “my” wildflowers daily and it feeds a deep well inside me where I think my soul might live, but the flowers play a much more important role in the survival of the forest ecosystem at large.

Trout Lily/Yellow Adder's Tongue

The earliest of the pollinators are waking up now and they’re hungry–just this week I’ve seen the first moths, bees, and today a predatory wasp (hello friend of my garden!).  Cool night temperatures and very few flowers in bloom make it much harder for our pollinator friends to make a living this time of year.  Also, spring ephemeral seeds are planted by insects like ants who eat the high-fat material surrounding the seed.  Every spring beauty you press into your flower book represents multitudes of bees who won’t be eating and ants who won’t feed their young.  If they don’t eat, they don’t get the calories they need to beat those little wings to the next patch of blooming flowers or carry away the heavy detritus of forest life, never mind making it through nights with lows in the 40’s.  The more healthy, genetically diverse pollinators bopping around from flower to flower, the more secure our food supply (and every other creature’s) in the face of climate change catastrophe.

The early insects need the flowers to live; picking them does a disservice to us all.  Yes, they’re beautiful, but take a picture–it’ll last longer, and the flower will fulfill its essential role in the early spring ecosystem, helping ensure the food supply for all of us.

Bloodroot by the stone wall

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2 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Pick the Flowers: Leave the Spring Ephemerals Alone

  1. Fantastic. I’ve been cataloging the ephemera here on the Farm in photographs. I, too, check on them every day, as I am learning to identify many of them for the first time. Some of the flowers are abundant (like the spring beauty, May apple, and the rue anemone), but others are not so common on this patch of ground. I want to protect them, give them a safe haven. Here this not only includes not picking the flowers, but also of being conscious of where livestock are allowed to graze and not mowing the border between yard and woods. Thanks for a great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great point! Spring ephemeral seeds are spread & planted by ants (and maybe other insects too?), but ants are small and it’s chilly outside, so the seeds usually only make it a few yards from the parent plants. That’s why so many of these are threatened or endangered–habitat fragmentation does them in! Thanks for your thoughtful comments!

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