Thank an Ant! The Essential Spring Wildflower Gardeners of the Insect World. By Vicki Bonk.

The Ephemeral Spring Wildflowers
After a long winter, spring wildflower ephemerals herald a new growing season. The first blooms magically transform the woodland landscape. These early plants emerge in deciduous forests before the overhead trees fully leaf out.

One of the many spring ephemerals: Trillium grandiflorum. Photo: Vicki Bonk

Those same trees provide the leaf litter that creates the nutrient-rich soil in which ephemerals and other spring wildflowers flourish. The ephemerals have a brief, glorious moment to capture the sun’s rays to photosynthesize, grow, reproduce, store food, and go to seed before their foliage dies back just as trees leaf-out in the spring. Ephemerals, in contrast to other spring blooming forbs, lie dormant until the following spring.

For those of us tuned-in to nature’s rebound, this time of year is a treasure. But we humans aren’t the only ones anticipating the early flora arrivals. A myriad of forest community members wait to interact with critical beneficial exchanges, including early pollinators. However, there is an often overlooked but crucial partner in this woodland web of life: the ant. Never underestimate the value of the ant! Or, a plant’s ability to entice another being to do some legwork on its behalf.

Ants on trillium seeds in an herb garden. Photo: Mike Dunn of Road’s End Naturalist

Myrmecochory and Mutualism
Myrmecochory is the name for the specific phenomena of seed dispersal by ants. An astounding 30 to 40 percent of woodland spring wildflower seeds are “planted” by ants. This connection runs deep. (After all, there is an “ant” in the word plant!) Mutualism is a relationship in which both sides benefit: a give and take. In the case of ants and spring ephemerals, the plants’ seeds feed the ants and the ants plant the seeds. The seeds of myrmecochorous plants have a specialist attractant to ants.

Nodding trillium, Trillium cernuum seeds displaying fleshy elaiosome. Photo: Heather Holm

These seeds have “fat bodies” called elaiosomes—a lipid and protein-rich, oily attachment to the outside of the seed. This fatty food closely matches that of the insects that ants would naturally prefer to eat. Ants gather the appealing seeds, carry some back to their nests to feed their larvae the elaiosome, and then discard the remaining seed in their underground tunnel “garbage” (think compost) piles. The wildflower benefits by having their seeds planted in nutrient-rich germination grounds, safe from seed predators, and away from plant competition.

A woodland rich with ants abounds with wildflowers…and vice versa!

Bloodroot seeds before being carried off by ants. Photo: Vicki Bonk


An ant transporting bloodroot seed. Photo: Mike Dunn








 A Sampling of Spring Wildflowers Planted by Ants

Trout Lilies | White trout lily, Erythronium albidum shown here with spring beauty | Bloom season: April – May | Height” 4 – 8″ | Habitat: part shade, shade; moist woods. Photo: Vicki Bonk
Trilliums | Large-flowered trillium, Trillium grandiflorium, shown here | Bloom season: May – June | Height: 8 – 18″ | Habitat: part shade, rich woods. Photo: Vicki Bonk
BloodrootSanguinaria canadensis | Bloom season: March – May | Height: 6 -12″ | Habitat: part shade, shade; woods. Photo: Vicki Bonk
Spring Beauties | Virginia spring beauty, Claytonia virginica, shown here | Bloom season: April – June | Height” 3 – 6″ | Habitat: part shade, moist woods. Photo: Vicki Bonk
Hepatica | Sharp-lobed hepatica, Anemone acutiloba, shown here | Bloom season: March – May | Height: 2 – 6″ | Habitat: part shade, shade; deciduous or mixed woods. Photo: Vicki Bonk
Violets | Common blue violet,  Viola sororia, shown here | Bloom season April – June | Height: 3 – 8″ | Habitat: shade, sun; woods, lawns, roadsides, fields. Native violets are a spring wildflower, not an ephemeral. Photo: Vicki Bonk
Wild Ginger | Asarum canadense is known more as a groundcover than for its (mostly hidden) red flower. Wild ginger is not an ephemeral but does emerge early in the spring | Bloom season: April – May | Height 4 – 12″ | Habitat: part shade, shade; rich woods. Photo: Vicki Bonk
Dutchman’s Breeches, Dicentra cucullaria | Bloom season: April – May | Height: 4 -12″ | Habitat: part shade, shade: rich woods. Photo: Andy Scott


Thank you to Vicki Bonk, Mike Dunn, Heather Holm, and Andy Scott for their contributions to this article. This article was also published in Wild One’s Reflections, a publication of Wild Ones Twin Cities.

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