Watch as spring ephemerals form a magic carpet

CorrespondentMarch 14, 2011 

Today the News & Observer begins an occasional nature column from Meg Lowman, who pioneered the science of forest canopies. She is director of the Nature Research Center, N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, and professor of physical and mathematical sciences at N.C. State University.

"The earth laughs in flowers."

- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Spring inspires growth, energy and love.

Temperate plants, with their vernal patterns of flowering, fruiting and leafing, serve as a reliable calendar for nature's renewal. Like spring fever in humans, light and warmth serve as environmental triggers that awaken plants.

In the botanical world, nothing is more exhilarating than the arrival of "spring ephemerals." This fancy terminology refers to the early spring wildflowers that bloom on the forest floor before the tree canopies leaf out and cast their deep shade.

Spring ephemerals represent a unique ecological strategy. These forest-floor occupants take advantage of early spring light to undergo photosynthesis and reproduction. Spring ephemerals are hardy. They may experience a late frost, or get chewed by hungry rabbits when no other foliage is available.

For residents of North Carolina, spring ephemerals are synonymous with playing hooky from school, spring fever and planting early crops. At Hemlock Bluff Nature Preserve in Cary, yellow trout lilies create a golden carpet to welcome weekend walkers. Other Piedmont spring ephemerals to watch for include: hepatica, spring beauty, meadow violet, trailing arbutus and Jack-in-the-pulpit. Careful observations might also reveal the gorgeous white Atamasco lily, an elegant yet less-common forest floor denizen.

Pollinators and insects that feed on the spring wildflowers are also synchronized to appear early, followed soon after by the leafing of the tree canopy: oaks, maples, beech and many others.

Project Budburst ( is a national network for citizens to monitor the seasonality of local plants, especially budburst and leafing in the spring. Phenological dates are logged into numeric bases, which provide important information about how nature adapts to environmental conditions.

At the new Nature Research Center in downtown Raleigh, this information will be visualized as part of exhibits where the public can be engaged. When the NRC opens in 2012, join our teams of North Carolina citizen-scientists to monitor phenology, including spring ephemerals.

Meg Lowman:

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