Many spring ephemerals–such as daffodils–dazzle the early season with their colorful flowers. But their benefit to the ecosystem extends beyond beauty. Learn about spring ephemerals and how they can benefit a permaculture garden.
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What are Spring Ephemerals?
Daffodils are spring ephemerals–herbaceous plants that live in deciduous forests. Ephemeral means “lasting for a very short time”. They leaf out, gather energy, flower, and reproduce in the early spring before the canopy trees leaf out.
During their short time of spring activity, they have access to full sun conditions while other plants are still dormant. This period fuels their energy needs for the entire year. They are also largely resistant to deer and other animals.
Daffodils and other spring ephemerals will reproduce by setting seed as well as by sending out new shoots from the root bulbs. This is why spring ephemerals usually grow in patches or colonies.
Once the trees and shrubs surrounding them begin leafing out and temperatures start to warm up, spring ephemerals are signaled that it is time to go dormant until the following year. The leaves and flowers will die back naturally for the season.
Ecological Benefits of Spring Ephemerals
Spring ephemerals contain a high level of nutrients. That’s because the early spring rains are rich in nutrients. As the spring rains wash over an area, they take topsoil and organic matter with them. Spring ephemerals–with their root systems being active during this time–catch and hold the moisture and important nutrients and prevent them from leaching away.
When spring ephemerals die back at the end of the spring season, the excess nutrients they collected will then enrich the plants and trees that surround them.
Spring Ephemerals in the Permaculture Garden
Daffodils and other spring ephemerals can benefit the permaculture garden in many ways. They provide nectar for early season pollinators, which in turn can improve the pollination of fruit trees for better fruit set. That’s one reason why daffodils are often planted in fruit tree guilds.
Because they catch and hold moisture and early season nutrients, they are helpful to plant at the high edges of the garden. As the season goes on, they will enrich the the vegetable garden or fruit and nut plants with nutrients.
The following are five spring ephemerals–including daffodils–that can be helpful to your permaculture garden.
5 Spring Ephemerals for the Permaculture Garden
1: Ramp Allium tricoccum (USDA growing zones 4-8)
Ramp, also called wild leek, is probably the most useful spring ephemeral because it is deliciously edible. Dave Jacke, author of Edible Forest Gardens, calls it, “the king of the edible spring ephemerals”. It is one of the most reliable and easiest to grow spring ephemerals in full shade conditions. Just be sure it has access to the spring sunshine.
In a new food forest there may not be sufficient shade during the summer. In this case, it will be better to use one of the cousins of ramps – leeks, garlic, onions, chives, or garlic chives. Once the food forest has matured and provides consistent shade, ramps will be the better choice.
For those who wish to add more edibles to an existing forest, it is important to do so with the least amount of damage in order to protect our remaining – and dwindling – unmanaged forests. Ramps, along with currants and mushrooms, are an excellent choice. They will enrich the local ecosystem but require little soil disturbance for planting.
Ramps are often interplanted with wild ginger in the forest or with edible herbs in the food forest.
Both the leaves and the roots of ramps are edible, similar to their cousins – onions, leeks, and garlic.
To ensure that a colony of ramps survives, it’s important to leave most of the root bulbs intact. Ramps put out only two leaves each spring, so harvest only one leaf of each plant so that it can still collect energy from the sun, store it in its root, and produce flowers.
2: Daffodil Narcissus spp. (USDA growing zones 3-10)
Daffodils are an example of a spring ephemeral that has been widely cultivated and used in traditional landscaping and flower gardens, along with other spring ephemeral flowers such as snowdrop, hyacinth, and crocus. These dependable spring ephemerals have leapt out of the forest and into sunny yards without skipping a beat.
Daffodils are an extremely useful, non-edible plant for the food forest. Their root bulbs are larger than other spring ephemerals. Toby Hemenway, author of Gaia’s Garden, suggests using them for grass suppression. When planted in a circle at the drip line of a fruit or nut tree, daffodils keep grasses from creeping under the tree, preventing the grass from competing with the tree for water and soil nutrients.
Another benefit of daffodils is that the large bulbs will repel digging animals such as gophers, while the aboveground leaves will repel deer and other browsers. For that reason, it is common to see another circle of daffodils planted directly around the trunk of the tree.
Photo Credit: Bryant Olsen Flickr
3: Camas Camassia spp. (USDA growing zones 3-8)
Camas are another spring ephemeral with a beautiful flower to consider for use in the permaculture garden. Similar to daffodils, they have evolved to be useful in full sun conditions, and can be used at the drip line of a tree to suppress grass.
According to Gaia’s Garden, “camas bulbs were a principal food of western Native Americans and are having a resurgence among wild-food enthusiasts”. In order to eat the bulbs, the whole plant must be harvested. For this reason, they are best used in sunny, well-maintained gardens, where the bulbs can be replaced each year. Never use camas and daffodils together if you intend to eat the camas, since daffodils are toxic and you wouldn’t want to get the two confused during harvest.
This page has more details about growing camas.
Photo Credit: Peter Gorman Flickr
4: Spring Beauty Claytonia (USDA growing zones 3-8)
Spring beauty is a dainty, rose-colored flower that is an important early-season nectary for pollinators. According to Edible Forest Gardens, it may also be juglone-tolerant, and able to exist under walnut trees. Juglone is a natural chemical given off by walnut trees that can be poisonous to other plants.
Dave Jacke suggests planting them with strawberries in partial shade. Just as the spring beauties go dormant, the strawberries will begin leafing out.
Photo Credit: Robert Mussey Flickr
5: Toothwort Dentaria (USDA growing zones 4-7)
Toothwort prefers to grow in the rich, moist soils of deep forest. In fact, toothwort can even tolerate wet feet. Toothwort makes a nice ground cover, though it will die back somewhat in the heat of summer. The leaves are especially edible (raw or cooked) and nutritious, and are often added to salads or soups.
For a list of more spring ephemerals, go here.
2 Spring Ephemeral Harvesting Rules
Rule #1: Never harvest more than 1/3 of a stand of spring ephemerals in a forest.
For the spring ephemerals that will be harvested for eating, it is important to follow the forager’s rule of thumb: Never harvest more than 1/3 of any colony of a spring ephemeral. They are slow growing, and harvesting too much of them at one time significantly reduces their ability to sustain or build a colony. Reverence is key in the forest.
Rule #2: Never collect seeds or plants from the forest.
It is important that we leave our remaining forests as intact as possible. The spring ephemeral colonies (with the exception of daffodils) are fragile and must be protected. If you intend to grow any of these plants in your food forest, it will be easy to source them from native plant nurseries, either locally or online.
Jacke, Dave. Edible Forest Gardens, Volume 1: Ecological Vision and Theory for Temperate Climate Permaculture & Volume 2: Ecological Design and Practice for Temperate Climate Permaculture. White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2005.
Hemenway, Toby. Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture. White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2009.
Spring ephemerals–like daffodils–can add nutrients to a permaculture garden and reduce soil erosion issues.
Which spring ephemerals are you excited to plant?