Spring Ephemerals

In the northern hardwood forest, trout lily begins to bloom almost before the last snow melts in the deepest stands of fir or cedar. All winter, the root has slowly grown deeper into the earth; before the snow has melted, the shoot has begun to push through last autumn’s duff. The mottled, red and green leaves emerge all at once, seemingly overnight, to blanket the forest floor. Another day or two, and their drooping flowers unfurl to entice the early, forest pollinators. For a week, in the sun beneath the bare trees, they adorn the forest in yellow. And then they vanish before the spring has ended, withdrawn beneath the earth until the next awakening.

Two trout lilies begin to bloom on the forest floor. Their drooping yellow flowers rise above red and green mottled, lance-shaped leaves.
Trout Lilies
Trout Lily

Although they form an almost insignificant part of the biomass of the forest, trout lilies — in fact, all of the ephemeral spring flowers — have evolved to play an important recycling role in the ecosystem. In the early days of spring, these fragile wildflowers capture much of the precious nitrogen and phosphorous that would otherwise leach away into the earth with the snowmelt and spring rains. They bind the vital nutrients into their tissues for a few, critical weeks. Then, when the ubiquitous fungi have spread their hyphal nets through the forest litter, and when the trees have again sent their fine roots growing and scavenging through the shallow, organic soil, the decomposing trout lilies release what they have conserved.

A painted trillium on the forest floor.
Painted Trillium in the South March Highlands

Ottawa offers many wonderful places to observe spring wildflowers. I recommend the older, hardwood forests on Canadian shield, like the South March Highlands Conservation Forest or the Crazy Horse Trail in the Carp Hills. Pink Lake, in Gatineau Park, offers one of the most varied and beautiful displays. As the trail circling the lake climbs from the low, rich shoreline to lichen-encrusted bedrock, it passes through a range of micr0-habitats and soils. Each unique combination of light, moisture, and nutrients supports its own flora. Early saxifrage, my favourite spring flower, grows on the cliffs along the east side of the lake. Proof that, “life finds a way” (to quote Malcolm from Jurassic Park), it roots in cracks and crevices with only a dusting of soil to support it. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, the name itself, saxifragus, means “stonebreaking”. It embodies for me the resilience and tenacity of life, especially after the long winter.

An early saxifrage blooms in a cluster of white flowers, emerging from a rosette of leaves clinging to a crevice in bare rock.
Early Saxifrage at Pink Lake
A red trillium at Pink Lake.
A Red Trillium at Pink Lake
Wild ginger growing at pink lake
Wild Ginger at Pink Lake
The yellow bloom of large flowered bellwort droops from its limp leaves.
Large Flowered Bellwort at Pink Lake

Spring ephemerals remind me that every trial — every long winter, every dark night, every storm, every spiritual drought — comes to an end. On some afternoon, we will feel the sun on our faces and catch the moist, redolence of life emerging from the earth. The scent will rise in our chests and head. Our eyes will see a little more clearly. Our steps will feel a little more light.


They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter.
-William Carlos Williams, By the Road to the Contagious Hospital

Never make life-changing decisions at 4 o-clock in the morning. Or in February.

For several years, I worked nights at a mental health facility for youth – the graveyard shift, 11 PM to 7 AM. Apart from my regular rounds and a once-nightly visit from the supervisor, I sat much of the time in silence and a fragile pool of light, with darkness hovering outside the window and bleeding down the halls. The dim lights of other buildings made the isolation feel more acute.

So often we hear, “trust your feelings”. I disagree. Know your feelings, but do not trust them – especially in the hours before dawn, when dark thoughts take wing and the black dog waits outside the window.

A faint peach light seeps above dark trees as dawn begins on Head Lake.
First Blush of Dawn, Head Lake, Algonquin Park

As a physician highly regarded for his humanity and care, William Carlos Williams must have known the loneliness of the pre-dawn: waiting at the bedside of a patient, or walking an empty hallway to his own echoing footsteps. But as an observer of Nature, he also knew that night and winter always end.

But now the stark dignity of
entrance — Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted, they
grip down and begin to awaken

Those attuned to Nature always see the seed of the next season in the present one: death in life; life in death. In the height of summer, the first flocks of starlings foreshadow autumn. The bloom of asters and goldenrod in September – the swelling gall on the stem – hints at winter to come, even while the dust of summer still glazes the horizon. In the depths of winter, in February, when the sun seems remote and grey trees rattle in cold winds, the croak of high-spiralling ravens speaks of spring glimpsed far to the south. Just when the darkness seems interminable, a morning dawns with the sound of running water and the scent of earth.

I don’t know why Lauren lost hope. I knew her as the daughter of a friend and an occasional babysitter for my son. In those rare times that we would meet on the street, we always took time to stand and chat. She had a bright, summer smile. She reminded me of sunflowers.

I walked around the City today. In a patch of thawing earth against a south wall, I found a few, green blades pushing up through the soil from buried bulbs. A cardinal sang from a tree. A pair of chickadees flitted back and forth from a birdhouse on a front porch. House sparrows chattered gregariously under the eaves of an old house.

Young ostrich ferns unfurl amidst tender leaves of trout lilies.
Ostrich Fern and Trout Lily, Richmond Fen Swamp

It probably would have made no difference, but I wish that I could have told Lauren about those nights when I waited for the faintest lightening of the eastern sky – for that moment when black pales to deep blue. I wish that she’d seen the almost imperceptible flush of green edging the scale of a leaf bud before it even begins to swell. I would like to have said to her, “wait for morning, wait for Spring”.