The Ephemerals

by Sarah West

trout lily

Quietly from the rich, soggy duff, trilliums rise. The forest floor is still sparse this time of year—young shoots so slight and new they do not yet push against each other. There is room for Claytonia to spread its candelabra form, offering humble blossoms on succulent green platters, for Anemone to blush, painted trout lily leaves to suggest patches of dappled summer shade, fringecup to build its petaline towers and showy Cardamine blooms to bow, faint and pink, at ferns uncoiling nearby.

Like an idea springing forth, a melody filling its season, in some way they have agreed on this arrangement, each moment conspiring with its species. The ephemerals appear from thin air and stay only a twinkling breath. Many emerge, bloom and vanish (leaves and all) within a couple of weeks, exploiting the time it takes neighboring flora to stretch out of winter. They represent one of the cleverest biological strategies, winning the right to reproduce through haste rather than muscle or cunning. And by doing so, they enchant.

We are busy creatures, spending our days barely aware of the passing minutes, sighing often that time has lost its heft, floats weightless as foam atop our ambitions and fears. Like a sentence relinquished of its punctuation, we ramble. But there on the forest floor, displaying their fleeting fragility, wildflowers speak. Time requires neither weight nor leisure to hold value. One afternoon among these transient beings may be all you will see of them until next year.

Since my first encounter, the ephemerals captured me. I love nothing more than an afternoon in a rich alpine meadow or rock garden lazing in the sun, hopping from plant to plant, field guide and camera in hand, to study. Being small and often close to the ground, they have an almost private beauty I must lean into, a reserved complexity that aspires no farther than a few inches. Looking up from a wildflower, the world seems so civilized, so clearly beautiful. In the garden I follow along.

As much as I lust after summer harvests or find solace in autumn color and crispness, spring arrives like a slow gong. I have always enjoyed waking more than falling asleep, so it is fitting that this season moves me. I can barely contain the muffled thrill of spring’s first buds—a tulip bulb crawling to the surface, the first green Narcissus fingers, Fritillaria’s observant crawl, the push of green onto a world grown tired of its resting.

Spring mornings I am eager to step outside, take stock of what has changed overnight. Sometimes I find the sweet-scented starflower has opened, others an electric blue gentian trumpet or pink shooting star. In a morning of spring weeding, the wild tulips might yawn themselves awake while I’m not looking. And suddenly, the whole vegetable patch will be covered in yellow kale and mustard blooms, burgundy-veined arugula petals, like suspended confetti. One comes as if to celebrate the other’s passing and each day is truly different from the next. It’s like a game to come looking, to stay awake to its subtlety.

And even though I coddle these plants, watering and feeding them, mulching and weeding out competitors, I know they would still be here if the garden went wild. Amid a tangle of weeds, the Ipomopsis and Camas know their way. The wild buckwheat and Alliums will stand the summer drought. Unlike many flowers in the garden, beefy visions of their feral ancestors, the ephemerals have not changed their ways in our company. They do not grow because of me.

wild tulip

pasque flower


shooting star