blood root

Developing buds on bloodroot with its first flower

Spring 2020 generally arrived on time in Connecticut, but with some hesitation. A few bright, warm days have been sprinkled between cool or rainy, windy days and some localized snow showers.  Those warm days brought out the rakes, pruners, shovel, and a pop-up yard bag to clear the debris that accumulated since the fall clean up in the shady perennial beds and sunny pollinator garden. Tiny shoots of the ephemeral  bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) and Virginia bluebells (Mertensia sp) were buried under still-soggy leaves and had to be uncovered carefully by hand to prevent damage to the delicate new shoots.

                           Mertensia emerging

Mertensia emerging

mertensia in flower

By mid-April, flowers start to appear on Mertensia

Ephemerals are plants that pop up in early spring, produce leaves, flowers and seeds but then disappear when the summer perennials are at their peak of display.  The ephemerals take advantage of the short period between when snow cover disappears and trees start to leaf out. Usually found in cool, moist, rich soil in shady woodland areas, they produce their flowers for a short time, are pollinated, produce seeds then disappear underground until the following spring. Ephemerals provide essential nectar and/or pollen for early foraging bees and flies.

bleeding heart

Bleeding Heart

trout lily

Trout Lily

 Areas around the home that are in dappled shade are perfect spots to grow ephemerals.  The best way to add these early bloomers to home beds is by purchasing root stock from a trusted supplier. Plant the bare roots or corms 2-3 inches deep in moist, humus-rich acidic soils (4.5-6.5 pH) that drain well and are sheltered from all-day summer sun. In the fall, keep the area with the new plantings moist so they develop a good root system.  A light winter cover of shredded leaves will make it easier for the new growth to emerge in the spring. Eventual cold temperatures will force dormancy. The plants will start to develop roots and shoots after about 3-4 months when soil temperature starts to rise. Divide mature plants in the fall being careful to provide roots for each new section. A light scattering of balanced fertilizer (such as 5-5-5) can be added to each new planting area.

Other native ephemerals that will grow in Connecticut gardens include several varieties of trillium, Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria ), trout lily (Erythronium americanum), and spring beauty (Claytonia virginica). In Connecticut, common bleeding heart Lamprocapnos spectabilis (formerly Dicentra spectabilis), is an introduced, non-native ephermal that will do well in rich, moist, shady soil.

mountain mint emerging

Emerging mountain mint

mountain mint in flower

Mountain Mint in flower  (Pycnanthemum muticum)  photo:

While clearing leafy debris from areas in the yard where ephemerals are planted requires a light touch, clean-up in the pollinator garden needs less careful raking and is more about removing the spent seed heads, stems and stalks that were left standing for over-wintering insects and birds. One of the first perennials to emerge through the leaf litter in the pollinator garden is mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum) . Even a light brush of the young leaves with the rake produces a bright spearmint-y fragrance. By late May the blue-green foliage of the mature plant will be covered with 1.5-inch buttons of flowers that attract many bees.


New Mondara growth appears by mid-April 

monarda in flower

Flowering Monarda didyma, Jacob Cline.   photo:

Another pollinator favorite that is a must for the pollinator garden is Monarda or bee balm. There are several varieties that are popular with Connecticut gardeners including the native Monarda fistulosa  (wild bergamot),  which has a bluish-purple flower, and the bright red Monarda didymaM. didyma is a native in many parts of eastern North America but is not native to Connecticut. One of the most popular of the M. didyma species is the variety “Jacob Cline.”

Newer bee balm cultivars have been introduced that are a cross of the M.  fistulosa and M. didyma. The newer varieties aim to reduce the plant’s susceptibility to powdery mildew, a foliar disease that doesn’t usually harm the plant but is unsightly. At worst, a severe case of the powdery mildew causes severe discoloration and early leaf drop.  Ruby throated hummingbirds are frequent visitors to the bee balm section of the pollinator garden. A variety of bees and wasps also are frequent feeders.

Other plants in the pollinator garden that emerge at the same time as the bee balm and mountain mint include the low bush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) and the “Showy Lantern” variety of Enkianthus campanulatus. Both bushes have similarly-shaped buds and flowers and appeal to nectar-seeking bees.

A plant that is slow to emerge in the spring is the Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum), a favorite of butterflies and bees. Often considered a road side weed, it is susceptible to powdery mildew but is still a nice spreading addition to the pollinator garden. It provides seed heads for winter birds, making it a beneficial “weed.” Another weedy plant that grows easily everywhere, and is often wrongly-blamed for causing seasonal allergies, is the goldenrod (Solidago sp.). Its young leaves also emerge early. When in full bloom, goldenrod is a bee and fly favorite. There are more than 100 species of this plant, which is native to the mid-and eastern United States. Solidago canadensis is a variety native to New England and is found throughout Connecticut. It has a long-lasting bloom and is a bright yellow addition to the late summer garden.

Another plant that can be added to any pollinator garden that has lots of room is the assertive and suckering flowering raspberry (Rubus odoratus). It can grow from 3-6 feet tall and 6-10 feet wide and produces pinkish-purple flowers followed by large ruby-colored fruit. The fruit is edible but most say it is not very tasty. It is low maintenance, can tolerate some shade. The flowers develop over the summer and are a favorite of birds.

Plants that do best in the pollinator garden need full sun, can tolerate some drought and prefer average, well-drained, acidic soils (5-6.5 pH).

golden rod

A new patch of new goldenrod plants emerge

raspberry branch

New leaves on raspberry cane.

A deciduous shrub that has emerged as a volunteer at the edge of the pollinator garden is the Northern Spicebush (Lindera benzoin). Since it produces flowers in the spring before the leaves appear, it is easy to identify in the woods and at the back of the garden.  This plant can grow into a small tree (6-12 feet for width and height) but may be pruned to fit into a smaller space.  Its leaves and fruit, when crushed, produce a distinctive fragrance. The plant is dioecious – it needs both a male and female plant to produce the bright red, oval fruit on the female plant.  Leaves of the Spicebush plant are a preferred food source for the caterpillar of the Spicebush swallowtail butterfly (Papilio troilus).

Spice bush will thrive in average, well-drained soil in both shady and sunny locations. It takes a more open shape when in shade.  The leaves turn a bright golden yellow in the fall, giving it an all-season appeal.


Clusters of flowers appear early on Spicebush  

spicebush swallowtail

Spicebush swallowtail butterfly wikipedi: (Papilio troilus)       

Every season has its own personality in the garden. Perennial ephemerals are the ring master that announces what’s to come throughout the year. They start the show in spring and depend on other plants to finish with a spectacular show of color in the fall. Try some of these plants in your perennial beds for an all-season variety of delights.

Unidentified photos: J. Laughman