A Plant is a Plant, No Matter How Small

Virginia Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)

Field Pansy (Viola bicolor)

Weeds are considered a nuisance. They have gardeners all over the world shaking their fists and grumbling at the ground. However, what if I told you there are no such thing as weeds. What are often regarded as “weeds” are actually spring ephemerals. Spring ephemerals are herbaceous flowering plants which are the first to come up in the spring and appear for short periods of time. They can be found in lawns, gardens, roadsides, and forests. Spring ephemerals are crucial for pollinators such as bees, butterflies, moths, and wasps and provide an early source of nectar these species rely on before most other plants are blooming. Additionally, spring ephemerals are used by small animals for forage such as young deer, rabbits, mice, and even some bird species. Spring ephemerals can also act as an indicator species in that they are the first to bloom when spring is on the rise. Studying the dates they bloom from year to year can give some valuable information about climate change and how temperatures are beginning to warm earlier in the year.

Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) has emerged early in the fields of the Southern 8ths Field Station.

Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) has emerged early in the fields of the Southern 8ths Field Station.

Spring ephemerals generally emerge in March or April when spring begins. However, in recent years you can find some of these flowers growing as early as January and February in some zones of the United States. While this trend may not seem like it would have much effect on other species, there are potentially negative outcomes that could result. Pollinators often specialize in specific pollen types and if the plants they depend on are flowering too early the plants may be gone by the typical bloom time, leaving early pollinators with limited options for survival. In a sense, Spring ephemerals act as life rafts in a sea of vegetation that has died back for the winter and, without these small plants, some pollinator species would have a hard time making it through the season.

Newly emerged spring ephemerals on the forest floor.

Newly emerged spring ephemerals on the forest floor.

Some spring ephemeral species often seen throughout the Carolinas include Virginia Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica), Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule), Red Deadnettle (Lamium purpureum), Speedwell (Veronica persica, V. hederifolia, V. arvensis), Clovers (Trifolium repens, T. pratense, T. dubium), Wood Sorrels (Oxalis dillenii, O. rubra, O. stricta), Chickweed (Stellaria media), Geranium species, and more. All of these spring ephemerals produce showy flowers which range in color from white, yellow, purple, and blues. They can provide a pop of color to an otherwise barren wasteland of lawn. Lawns are often considered ecological deserts containing little to no diversity and support very few pollinators and other wildlife. In contrast, a yard filled with native grasses and forbs can support hundreds of pollinators and other wildlife.

Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) bring a bright, cheerful pop of color to lawns and fields.

Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) bring a bright, cheerful pop of color to lawns and fields.

Spring ephemerals are essential in the seasonal cycle providing a crucial food source for early pollinators, birds, rodents, and small mammals. Too often, these small plants are overlooked, doused in herbicides, or mowed. I encourage you to consider thinking twice before weeding these essential pollinator plants from your yard. Change starts with you, and I believe in you all, a plant is a plant no matter how small.

 Author & Images: Brianna Bergamini