Written and Photographed by Caleb Melchior
Southern gardens are known for their big charismatic flowers: sugar-pink rhododendrons, peppermint domed mountain laurels, wedding cake layers of American dogwood, giant lemon-scented magnolias. These flowers are exciting, but don’t forget to look down at what’s growing closer to ground level.
When I was a kid in the Ozarks, I learned that the first signs of spring weren’t to be found up in the branches of the forest or out in the sunny meadows. Spring came first to the forest floor.
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) was the earliest to appear. Its tiny daisy-like flowers, with yellow centers and white rays, only lasted for a day or two. Next, we’d get a wave of violets – both the common purple (Viola odora) and downy yellow (Viola pubescens). A week or two later, the woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata) would bring drumettes of powder blue to hilltops – we’d gather the flowers in fistfuls and shove them into mason jars, filling the house with sweet scent. While the phlox was bright on the hilltops, sessile trillium (Trillium sessile) would carpet the ground in lower areas, mottled foliage topped with flecks of burgundy flower. Once spring had really arrived, the shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia) and puttyroot orchid (Aplectrum hyemale) would send up flowers in the flickering shade of a new season’s foliage. Every week, something fresh fluttered into bloom – to be overcome the next week by a new glory.
When I visited the Reserve last spring, I kept moving slowly – camera snapping, barely inching my way along – because I was fascinated by the wonderful tapestry of ephemerals covering the ground. Old favorites from my childhood, like Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum) and herb robert (Geranium maculatum) achieved fairy-tale sizes in the soft weather and abundant rain of the mountaintop. Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) lifted happy umbrellas above the forest floor. I’d never seen some of these plants thriving at lower elevations – rosy wake-robin (Trillium catesbaei) and lady’s slippers – both the pink (Cypripedium acaule) and yellow (Cypripedium parviflorum).
The garden team at the Reserve is doing a phenomenal job of fostering existing woodland plant populations while also enhancing them with strategic new plantings. One genius strategy that Kelly’s using is to plant intermingled drifts of differently-colored selections of the same species (such as woodland phlox, Phlox stolonifera) to create beautiful color variations within mass plantings. I’m excited to see how these ephemeral plant communities continue to evolve.
Even if you don’t have the existing root and seed bank of the Reserve, you can make a dynamic woodland garden of your own. Find an area with with light shade – beneath the canopy of deep-rooted trees or in bright building shadow is great. Keep the soil stabilized with a groundcover that leafs out late – ferns or sedges are great options. Then, choose a handful of different woodland ephemeral species and try them throughout your chosen location. I’d just plant a few to begin with – maybe a dozen of each – and spread them across the site to see how they do. After 2-3 years, you’ll see how they’re settling in. Make some mass plantings of the ones that do well. In just a few years, you too will be doing a spring shuffle as you gaze down at your ever-changing carpet of woodland delights.