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17 Native Spring Ephemerals of Kentucky

Updated: Mar 9


Virginia Bluebells in the woods

Spring ephemerals are part of a stunning natural phenomenon that occurs throughout the deciduous forests of the eastern US, and Kentucky is no exception.


These plants have adapted to take advantage of a short period of favorable conditions. As a result, they are known for their early spring blooms.


In this post, we'll explore 17 of the most beautiful and fascinating native spring ephemerals of Kentucky, highlighting their unique features and where in the state they can be found.


Let's get started!


What Are Spring Ephemerals?


Spring ephemerals are a group of woodland plants that have adapted to bloom and set seed quickly before the tree canopy shades them out in the summer.


They often have a short blooming period of only a few weeks, after which their leaves wither away, and the plant goes dormant until the following spring.


Most spring ephemerals rely on symbiotic relationships with insects to spread their seeds, resulting in short-range seed dispersal.


Plant lovers cherish spring ephemerals for their colorful and showy flowers, which provide a vital, early source of pollen and nectar for pollinators such as bees and butterflies.


Native Spring Ephemerals of Kentucky


There are numerous spring ephemerals found in Kentucky. This list will focus mainly on species available from native plant nurseries. Consider adding some to your property as you scroll through. Our pollinators will thank you.


1. Dutchman's Breeches


Dutchman's Breeches

Dutchman's Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) is a native spring ephemeral found throughout Kentucky's rich woodlands. This delicate wildflower gets its name from its unusual appearance of white flowers that resemble a pair of pantaloons hanging upside down. Dutchman's Breeches seeds are dispersed by ants, which are attracted to the fleshy appendage on the seed called an elaiosome.


Dutchman's Breeches Kentucky


2. Prairie Trillium


Prairie Trillium

Prairie Trillium (Trillium recurvatum) is a unique spring ephemeral native to the moist woodlands of western Kentucky. Its three large, recurved leaves and striking, deep red flowers make this plant easily recognizable. Prairie Trillium blooms mid to late spring and is an essential nectar source for early pollinators such as bees, flies, and beetles.


Prairie Trillium Kentucky


3. Virginia Springbeauty


Virginia Springbeauty

Virginia Springbeauty (Claytonia virginica) is a small, delicate wildflower common in moist woodlands, fields, and along roadsides throughout Kentucky. It gets its name from its beautiful pink and white flowers, which bloom in early spring and are an important source of nectar for pollinators such as bees, flies, and butterflies.


Virginia Springbeauty Kentucky


4. Virginia Bluebells


Virginia Bluebells

Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica) is a stunning spring ephemeral found in Kentucky's moist woodlands and floodplain forests. This plant is known for its striking clusters of bell-shaped, pink, and blue flowers that emerge mid-spring. Due to their rare color and dazzling colonies, they have become one of our state's most recognized spring ephemerals.


Virginia Bluebells Kentucky


5. Bloodroot


Bloodroot

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is a native spring ephemeral commonly found in the rich woodlands of Kentucky. This plant gets its name from the bright red-orange sap that oozes from its root when cut. Bloodroot produces single, white flowers pollinated by bees and butterflies, and ants disperse its seeds. However, its roots are a severe poison risk to humans and should not be eaten.


Bloodroot Kentucky


6. Yellow Wakerobin


Yellow Wakerobin

Yellow Wakerobin (Trillium luteum) is a spring ephemeral, native to Kentucky's moist woodlands, easily identified by its bright yellow flowers and mottled green leaves. This plant blooms mid-spring and is an essential nectar source for early pollinators such as bees, flies, and beetles. Like other trillium species, Yellow Wakerobin relies on ants for seed dispersal, as ants are attracted to the nutritious elaiosomes attached to the seeds.


Yellow Wakerobin Kentucky


7. Eastern Shooting Star


Eastern Shooting Star

Eastern Shooting Star (Primula meadia) is a striking spring ephemeral native to Kentucky's moist woodlands and limestone prairie patches. This plant produces tall stems with clusters of white to pink flowers that resemble shooting stars, hence its name. Eastern Shooting Star blooms in mid-spring and is an essential source of nectar for pollinators such as bees while the wind disperses its seeds.


Eastern Shooting Star Kentucky


8. Jack-in-the-Pulpit


Jack-in-the-Pulpit

Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is a unique spring ephemeral found throughout Kentucky's moist woodlands. This plant is easily recognizable by its unusual flowering structure, with a green and brown spathe enclosing a small, club-like structure called the spadix, covered in tiny flowers. Jack-in-the-Pulpit is an important food source for many woodland animals, including reptiles and birds, who feed on its fleshy stem and fruit. All parts of the plant are a severe poison risk to humans and should not be eaten.


Jack-in-the-Pulpit Kentucky


9. Rue Anemone


Rue Anemone

Rue Anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides) is a delicate spring ephemeral native to Kentucky's moist woodlands. It is identifiable by its small basal leaves and white to pink flowers. This plant blooms in early spring and is an essential nectar source for early pollinators such as bees and butterflies. Rue Anemone is also an important food source for many woodland animals, including deer and small rodents, who feed on its leaves and stems.


Rue Anemone Kentucky


10. Toadshade


Toadshade

Toadshade (Trillium sessile) is a spring ephemeral native to central Kentucky's moist woodlands. This plant gets its name from its mottled, green leaves, which resemble the skin of a toad. Toadshade blooms mid-spring and is an important nectar source for early pollinators such as bees, flies, and beetles. Like other trillium species, Toadshade relies on ants for seed dispersal.


Toadshade Kentucky


11. Yellow Trout Lily


Yellow Trout Lily

Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum) is a native spring ephemeral found throughout Kentucky's moist woodlands. This plant is easily identifiable by its bright yellow flowers and mottled leaves that resemble a trout's back. Once established, Yellow Trout Lily blooms beautifully and forms colonies if given the proper growing conditions.


Yellow Trout Lily Kentucky


12. Large White Trillium


Large White Trillium

Large White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) is a beautiful spring ephemeral found in most of Kentucky's moist woodlands. This plant produces large white flowers that bloom in mid-spring and can grow up to three inches in diameter. Unfortunately, Large White Trillium colonies have been significantly impacted by growing deer populations, as they readily graze on them.


Large White Trillium Kentucky


13. Azure Bluet


Azure Bluet

Azure Bluet (Houstonia caerulea) is a small, delicate spring ephemeral found throughout Kentucky's woodlands and wet meadows. This plant produces tiny blue and yellow flowers with four petals that bloom in mid-spring and can form dense mats on the forest floor. Azure Bluet is an important nectar source for early pollinators such as bees and butterflies.


Azure Bluet Kentucky


14. Largeflower Bellwort


Largeflower Bellwort

Largeflower Bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora) is a graceful spring ephemeral found in moist woodlands in all regions of Kentucky. This plant produces droopy, bell-shaped flowers that can be yellow or cream. It has six long stamens hidden by the petals that are particularly attractive to bees. Largeflower Bellwort can eventually spread to form colonies, with mature clumps you can divide in the fall.


Largeflower Bellwort Kentucky


15. Mayapple


Mayapple

Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) is a unique spring ephemeral found in open woodlands, woodland borders, and meadows in all regions of Kentucky. This plant produces large, umbrella-like leaves that can reach a foot in diameter and a single white flower. Mayapple is an important food source for wildlife such as box turtles, who sit at the perfect height to feed on its fruit. Unfortunately, all parts of this plant are severely toxic to humans, except for the ripe fruit. The NC State Extension even recommends wearing protective gloves when handling them due to the risk of severe skin irritation.


Mayapple Kentucky


16. Red Trillium


Red Trillium

Red Trillium (Trillium erectum) is a striking spring ephemeral found in eastern Kentucky's moist woodlands. This plant produces deep red, three-petaled flowers that bloom in mid-spring and grow to around 2.5 inches in diameter. Red Trillium is an important nectar source for pollinators such as bees and butterflies. Like the other trilliums in this list, ants disperse their seeds.


Red Trillium Kentucky


17. Cut-leaved Toothwort


Cut-leaved Toothwort

Cut-leaved Toothwort (Cardamine concatenata) is a delicate spring ephemeral native throughout Kentucky's moist woodlands. This plant produces small, four-petaled white or pink flowers that bloom in early spring, arranged in clusters atop slender stems. Its edible leaves and rhizomes were used for medicinal purposes by indigenous communities.


Cut-leaved Toothwort Kentucky


Where to Buy Spring Ephemerals


Kentucky nurseries can be hit or miss on if they carry spring ephemerals. A great place to check first is Ironweed Nursery. They are known to grow local ecotypes and usually have some in stock early in the growing season.


While we prefer to support local businesses, another option is to purchase them from online companies outside the state. Here are a couple of reputable online sellers that carry spring ephemeral plants or seeds:



NEVER take spring ephemerals from wild populations. Because of their short-range methods of seed dispersal, they are likely never to return once removed from an ecosystem. Our wild populations are quickly disappearing due to unethical harvesting practices.


Only buy spring ephemerals from reputable dealers that grew them from seed, or even purchase the seeds to grow them yourself.



Conclusion


Kentucky is home to a diverse array of native spring ephemerals that contribute to the state's natural beauty and biodiversity.


These plants have adapted to thrive in the state's unique ecological niches and support early-season pollinators.


By learning about and appreciating these plants, we can deepen our understanding of Kentucky's natural heritage and work to protect and preserve these valuable species for future generations.


Next time you venture out into Kentucky's woodlands, watch for these stunning spring ephemerals and take a moment to appreciate their fleeting beauty.


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