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. 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.

Ephemeral Trillium grandiflorum. Photo: Vicki Bonk

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.

Bloodroot seeds before being carried off by ants. Photo: Vicki Bonk
An ant transporting bloodroot seed. Photo: Mike Dunn

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. 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.

Nodding trillium, seeds displaying fleshy elaiosome.
Photo: Heather Holm
Ants on trillium seeds in an herb garden. Photo: Mike Dunn

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!



A Sampling of Spring Wildflowers Planted by Ants (photos by Vicki Bonk)

Trout Lilies | white trout lily, Erythronium


Bloodroot | Sanguinaria canadensis
Hepatica | sharp-lobed hepatica,
Anemone acutiloba
Virginia spring beauty | Claytonia virginica
Trilliums | large-flowered trillium, Trillium grandiflorium











Note: Thank you to Mike Dunn for his fabulous seed
and ant images. Learn more at his delightful Roads End Naturalist website.

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