Forget hyacinth, tulip and daffodil bulbs this fall. Instead, plant native trilliums, trout lilies and bluebells | Home & Garden
This is the time of year when advertisements from Dutch bulb suppliers are on the rise and bins full of flower bulbs appear in garden centres. These fill me with anticipation for a glorious spring. But this year, I’m also exploring an alternative: our own native North American spring mayflies.
I won’t completely give up on Dutch bulbs. I love the early blooming snow crocuses that I have naturalized on my lawn and the daffodils that line my flower beds. But my observation was that they attract few pollinators, especially the more hybrid and showy specimens. Indeed, aside from squirrels digging and eating crocus bulbs and so many other exotic bulbs, and deer smothering their flower buds, these plantings do little to benefit North American wildlife.
Looking for something that will bring more benefits to the local ecosystem, I called Neil Diboll, president of Prairie Nursery in Westfield, Wisc. Neil has been studying and growing native plants since the 1970s and as head of Prairie Nursery (he took over in 1982 when it was still a backyard cultivation operation), Neil was a pioneer in introducing meadow plants to the garden. Although he never lost his enthusiasm for these Midwestern natives, he expanded the market for his nursery by making it a go-to source for Midwestern and Eastern Woodland natives as well. When I met him one afternoon a few weeks ago, Neil told me that by focusing on Dutch imports I had missed some wonderful opportunities in my own backyard. He recommended that for early spring flowers I look into native spring ephemera.
Mayflies, Neil explained, are perennial woodland wildflowers that appear, usually under deciduous trees or in mixed deciduous and evergreen forests, in early spring, before the deciduous trees don’t come off. These wildflowers take advantage of the sunlight that penetrates the bare canopies of still leafless trees and the cool, wet conditions typical of this season, bloom, grow, then go dormant and retreat underground after the trees have subsided. blooming, depriving the mayflies of sunlight. . The dappled shade that shrouds the mayfly’s habitat through the heat and dryness of summer helps them survive until they reemerge, either in fall or late the following winter. Moisture in the fall and well-drained, acidic soil rich in organic matter are also essential.
Anyone who has walked through the early spring woods will recognize the names of many of these mayflies, such as trilliums, trout lilies, Virginia woodland bluebells, and spring beauties. But while their main show is in the spring, the best transplanting season for many of these plants is when they are dormant in early fall and can be dug up and shipped bare-rooted. The species most sensitive to this treatment are those with fleshy roots such as bulbs, corms or rhizomes; Neil recommended as outstanding examples of this class Trilliums, Jack in the Pulpits, Solomon’s Plumes, Solomon’s Seals, Bellworts, Virginia Woods Bluebells, Mayapples, Wild Leeks (also known as ramps) and shooting stars. After planting, cover the soil with a 4 to 6 inch mulch of clean, weed-free straw to insulate the plants and protect them from winter. The straw will compress up to 2-3 inches during the winter and new growth will come out in the spring. Leave the mulch in place, it will help retain moisture in the soil and prevent weed seeds from germinating.
Because spring ephemera go dormant in late spring, they should be mixed with plants that will maintain foliage coverage throughout the summer. This is desirable from an aesthetic point of view but also culturally: keeping the ground covered will help prevent weed invasion. Herbaceous perennials that Neil recommends for this purpose are ferns, wild ginger, bigleaf aster, white doll’s eye, cowberry and black cohosh. Unlike the spring ephemera listed above, these plants are mostly fibrous-rooted and best transplanted in the spring, meaning establishing your spring ephemeral display will be a two-season project. The gain should last for years.
To listen to my conversation with Neil Diboll, visit the Berkshire Botanical Garden’s “Growing Greener” podcast at berkshirebotanical.org/growinggreener.
Thomas Christopher is a volunteer at the Berkshire Botanical Garden and has authored or co-authored over a dozen books. Its featured companion in this column, Growing Greener, airs on WESUFM.org, Pacifica Radio and NPR and is available at berkshirebotanical.org/growinggreener.