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The Life Cycle of an Ephemeral Plant

Updated November 21, 2016

Something that is ephemeral is short-lived; it continues or exists for a very brief period of time. Ephemeral means quickly fading and transitory. When a plant is called ephemeral it is referring to the plant's growth strategy. A short life cycle for a plant can be a day or less than six or eight weeks.

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The length, duration and timing of a plant life cycle depends in large part on what type of growing season that particular plant has. A spring ephemeral plant is a perennial that dies back after blooming after a short growth and reproductive period. This growth period occurs when there is lots of light outside.


An ephemeral plant can actually complete more than one life cycle in a 12-month period. Annuals are ephemeral plants whereas perennials, which come back year after year, are not. Nocturnal blooming cacti are ephemeral. There are various desert plants that grow and then complete their life cycle in a very brief period of time.


A spring ephemeral will develop its stems, flowers and leaves, called its aerial parts, in the spring, bloom and then go to seed, dying back to its underground parts, which includes bulbs, rhizomes and roots. It remains in this state for the rest of the year. When spring arrives the next year, the plant will go through the same process once again.


An annual plant undergoes germination, flowering and death all in the same year. A subcategory of the annual is the summer annual, whose life cycle is experienced during the summer months. An example of a summer annual is crab grass. A winter annual, such as chickweed and dead nettle, grows close to the ground during the winter months, which enables it to conserve heat. If a plant grows only in the early spring or the late fall, it is considered a winter annual.

Why the Short Life?

A weedy ephemeral plant’s life cycle is less than a growing season, while desert ephemerals purposely grow during the short, wet periods that occur in arid climates.

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About the Author

Cindi Pearce is a graduate of Ohio University, where she received her bachelor’s degree in journalism. She completed both the undergraduate and graduate courses offered by the Institute of Children’s Literature. Pearce has been writing professionally for over 30 years.

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