|An old pink dogwood (Cornus florida) blooms on Hemlock* Street in Traveler's Joy*|
“I shall remember this spring day on my deathbed, if I remember anything at all -- a day shaped like a shining cup, brimful of birdsong and green blades. The dogwoods have exploded into blossom overnight, and the air vibrates with the music of the honeybees. In the afternoon, my husband and I take our coffee in the shade and simultaneously point to an iridescent phantom flashing among the wild columbines, sipping nectar from the bells. It is the first hummingbird of the year.”
I wrote that on April 9th, at the beginning of the week-long spring break, when I was finally free to enjoy a few days welcoming spring and reviving my spirit. Sitting in the garden for those halcyon moments made me mindful of Baudelaire’s advice to “extract the eternal from the ephemeral.” Don't we spend our whole lives attempting that?
One of the singular joys of this season is witnessing the resurrection of plant life, of seeing the spears of hostas and the long red fingers of peonies emerge from seemingly barren soil, and of watching shadows return to the garden, the light changing and taking on pastel hues beneath canopies of leaf and blossom. For me, the most anticipated of these emergences is the gallery of ephemerals, those spring perennials and wildflowers that grace us briefly with their presences before retreating into dormancy come summer.
Visiting these natives in their natural state is the optimal way to appreciate them, and I have done that in years past. I have especially fond recollections of a day-trip to the Smoky Mountains taken in April about a decade ago. We hiked up the Deep Creek trail, a few miles outside Bryson City, North Carolina, me toting my old Nikon and trying to keep it dry under my raincoat. (My husband, serving as my photographer’s assistant, received no such special treatment, I’m sorry to say, and remembers the trip much less enthusiastically.) Growing on the steep creekbanks and in the shallow rills carved beside the trail were crested dwarf iris (Iris cristata), showy orchis (Galearis spectabilis), white and pink trillium (Trillium grandiflorum), jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) and carpets of delicate mountain violets and unfurling fiddleheads. It’s well known that the southern Appalachian mountains harbor a greater diversity of plant species than almost any other region in North America, and if you’re lucky enough to live within a few hours’ drive of these spectacular forests and waterfalls, as I do, you owe it to yourself to go see what all the fuss is about.
|Autumn fern unfurls|
One of the most reliable of these is the mayapple, or mandrake (Podophyllum peltatum). My patch has gradually increased over the last five years, originating with a plant dug up in advance of construction on a neighborhood lot long ago and carried with me to each new garden like the horticultural equivalent of sourdough starter. There are Chinese cultivars on the market now, but I prefer the less showy leaves and pristine white flowers of the American native.
|Mayapple grows in moist Piedmont woodlands|
The plant emerges as blunt shoots just as the weather warms in March, with the blossom (one to a plant) coming later. The flower hides demurely beneath the leaves on the foot-high stalk, and as May approaches, produces a small green fruit, or ‘apple,’ which is poisonous until ripe, when it can apparently be made into jelly. (You’d need to stumble on a very large patch in the wild to have enough fruit for that.)
|Fruit of the mayapple|
Because the mayapple’s native habitat is the moist woodlands of the Piedmont – it grew beside a shady creek in the site where I salvaged it ahead of the bulldozers– I grow it in my small woodland garden along with hearts-a-bustin’ (Euonymus americana), Iris cristata ‘Vein Mountain,’ a powder blue variation on the wild species, Solomon’s seal (a white-edged selection called Polygonatum odoratum variegatum), and a patch of remarkably hardy red trillium (Trillium cuneatum) given to me by a friend.
I like the trillium’s common name, Wake Robin, because the plants’ emergence early in the season does coincide with the arrival of the robins. I have seen the same species, sporting maroon flowers and toad-spotted leaves, growing in large colonies at Pearson’s Falls, the idyllic trail and waterfall near Saluda, North Carolina, in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It surprises me that my trillium has accommodated so well to life in the lowlands, but then, we’ve had extremely cold winters the past two years. I mark their position with a large peony stand every year because the plants melt away in June, and as a forgetful gardener, I’ve come close to digging up their roots in autumn when trying to plant some new shrub.
|Solomon's seal appreciates a cool, shady corner|
In another part of the garden, in the bright shade cast by the giant pecan, I’ve planted several native coralbells, or Heuchera Americana. Their tall flower stalks are architecturally striking in the shadows, and I like the leafy petticoats of their foliage paired with ferns and azaleas. These perennial workhorses increase quickly, and in the three years since planting the first one I’ve moved offsets all over the garden. Early last spring I was surprised to discover small, finely bladed leaves emerging in the soil around the winter-tattered foliage of the first heuchera I had planted. In April I was elated by the appearance of tiny yellow bells at the ends of these stalks, identifying the plants as a species of mountain bellwort which I believe to be Uvularia puberula. Some seeds must have hitched a ride in the original pot and have settled in beautifully in the rich, light soil around the Japanese maples. If I had ordered the rhizomes of this southeastern ephemeral from a specialty nursery and had planted them in a carefully amended site with perfect conditions I suspect they would not have fared half so well.
|Mountain bellwort, Uvularia puberula|
With the temperature spiking this week and the showy headliners in the garden – the roses, irises and lilies –grabbing the spotlight, my ephemerals have begun their exit from the stage. I may prolong the season with a trip to the beautiful Blue Ridge, walking the trails where the trillium rules. Join me.