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Originally published Friday, March 8, 2013 at 11:00 AM

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Ephemerals bring early light to the drear and shade

They offer hope for a fresh season.

Special to The Seattle Times

Local news partner - Plant Talk

Valerie Easton writes in her blog about gardens and the people who make them.

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GARDENERS RHAPSODIZE about "spring ephemerals" without ever explaining what they are. Those paired words are so evocative of the airiness of springtime and the hope of a fresh season that it doesn't really matter. But if you have a woodland garden or a love of trilliums, you'll want to grow a few spring ephemerals yourself.

Trout lilies, shooting stars, corydalis, bleeding heart — many native wildflowers and introduced species are available to carpet your garden beneath the trees. That's what spring ephemerals do: pop up in March, April and May to cover the ground in leaf and flower, then go dormant in summertime. They're brought to life in earliest spring by the thin warmth of sunshine slanting through bare branches. They thrive in partial shade on the forest floor before the trees leaf out. They bloom long enough to usher in springtime, then in May or June, they retire back beneath ground, going dormant until late winter when they return.

And although most ephemerals look delicate — think of the lacy bleeding heart or the fluffy anemone — spring ephemerals are sturdy survivors. After all, they must compete with tree roots for moisture and collect enough energy from the pallid spring sunshine to keep them alive underground for months.

The Miller Botanical Garden in Shoreline has perhaps the most varied and impressive spring ephemeral collection around. Founder Elisabeth Miller gathered little spring treasures for her woodland garden over many years. Check out photos and sign up for a tour, at www.millergarden.org/.

Susie Egan, owner of Cottage Lake Gardens, specializes in woodland plants and trillium, of which she grows 45 of the 47 species in the world. She opens her two-acre garden in Woodinville for tours and Trillium Teas (see www.cottagelakegardens.com for this spring's schedule of events).

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.

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