Native Plants of New York City: Spring Ephemerals
As you walk through our woodland areas in springtime, just before the trees leaf out, you'll notice wildflowers growing on the forest floor. Some of these plants are called spring ephemerals! While spring brings us moments of beautiful blossoms in our landscaped parks through to summertime, these native wildflowers only appear for a short amount of time in the spring and play an important role in our forested ecosystems.
Spring ephemerals are perennial wildflowers that complete their aboveground lifecycle in the early spring. These plants must grow, flower, be pollinated, set seeds, and store energy within a few short weeks — all before the trees and shrubs leaf out and cast shade on the forest floor. In New York City, spring ephemerals bloom from approximately late March to early May. This period of time, between the late winter snowmelt and leaf emergence in the canopies of trees and shrubs, is perfect for spring ephemerals to have their moment in the sun. The weather and soil are warm and ample light reaches the forest floor to help them grow and bloom. As the trees leaf out and summer approaches, the plants finish their aboveground lifecycle, leaving only underground structures, such as bulbs and roots, for their next spring arrival.
Explore some of the spring ephemerals you'll encounter on your walk through the woods:
Best NYC Parks To Find Spring Ephemerals
Spring ephemerals naturally grow in our forested areas, and not typically in landscaped parks unless they were planted there. They thrive in nutrient-rich, moist undisturbed deciduous forests with shredded leaf litter, which is why some of our most natural parks are the perfect spots to find them.
Here are some of the parks our ecologists recommend for discovering spring ephemerals:
- Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx
- Watch our tour of spring ephemerals in Van Cortlandt Park on Facebook!
- Central Park in Manhattan
- Prospect Park in Brooklyn
- The Greenbelt on Staten Island
- Cunningham Park in Queens
- Alley Pond Park in Queens
- Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx
How Spring Ephemerals Help Our Pollinators and Ants
Spring ephemerals are critical food sources for early-emerging pollinators, such as bumblebees, mining bees, gnats, and flies, as well as ants that live in and visit our parks. Spring ephemerals provide nectar and pollen to native bees and flies during a time when floral resources are scarce.
Most spring ephemerals have a mutually beneficial relationship with ants called myrmecochory. Most spring ephemerals produce seeds with elaiosomes, a fleshy, lipid-rich structure that is a nutritious food source for ants (primary seed dispensers). Ants will carry the seeds back to their nests, consume the elaiosomes and discard the seeds in their refuse piles. Both plants and ants benefit. The seeds are dispersed far away from the parent plant where they may find suitable habitat to germinate and the ants get a nutritious meal.
Primary Threat: Invasive Plants
The understory of some of our parks is overwhelmed with invasive species such as lesser celandine, garlic mustard (shown here), multiflora rose, Japanese honeysuckle, Norway Maple, and several other invasives that degrade their habitat, disrupt soil chemistry, and shade out the spring ephemerals before they have a chance to grow. The rapid spread of these invasive plants is the primary threat to the persistence of spring ephemerals in NYC. Several of these invasive plants exhibit one or both of the following strategies to outcompete native spring ephemerals.
- Early emergence: Some invasive plants begin to grow or leaf out in the early spring to get a jumpstart on photosynthesis. They can quickly colonize a forested area or block sunlight before native spring ephemerals have a chance to grow.
- Allelopathic: Some invasive plants have roots or leaves that excrete chemicals into the soil that inhibit the growth and reproduction of surrounding plants.
How You Can Help
NYC Parks staff identifies and maps the distribution of spring ephemerals across all parks to ensure their habitat is protected from invasive plants and various development and construction projects. Want to help spring ephemerals, pollinators, and other native plants thrive?
- Volunteer at an NYC Parks Stewardship event to help remove invasive plants at your local park in order to restore habitat for spring ephemerals
- Plant local, native plants in your yard or on your windowsill, or encourage your community to use more native plants in their green spaces. To learn more about native plants, check out the Native Species Planting Guide of New York City.