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.
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.
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.
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)
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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