Ants...a vital component to the spread of woodland wildflowers
Wait a minute... How did that plant ge t over there?!

Here's the scenario: It's spring. You're eagerly inspecting your shady native plant areas to find the beautiful early spring wildflowers that have come up. You remember planting some trillium, or bloodroot, in a certain area and want to see if it will return. Success, you find it! But even more find more 6 feet away! How did this happen? Thank our friends, the ants.

Aphaenogaster fulva ants and bloodroot ( Sanguinaria canadensis ) seed with attached elaiosome. Urbana, IL.

There are species of woodland ants that co-exist in a mutually beneficial relationship called myrmecochory with certain woodland plants, such as Dutchman's Breeches, Celandine Poppy, Trillium, Bloodroot, Wild Ginger, Trout Lily, Hepatica, Violets, and many more. The seeds of these wildflowers have an oily, nutritious attachment called an elaiosome that attracts ants. Many ant species are omnivorous, or eat both plants and animals. In early spring, animal-sources of food are not plentiful, so many ants depend on the fatty lipid-filled elaiosomes found on woodland wildflower seeds. Ants take these seeds back to their nest, eat the elaiosomes, and discard the hard-coated seed in a waste chamber that can contain dead ants and feces which act as fertilizer for the seed. The ant gets food, while the plant gets its seeds dispersed and planted! The relationship between the plant and ant is amazing when you think about the fact that the size of the seed can't exceed the carrying capacity of the ant's jaws. Also, the colony size of these woodland ant species is generally small (a few hundred workers), which allows them to move their colony around very easily, further encouraging the dispersal of the seeds. The timing of the early seed production also coincides with the emergence of the ants. Nature is amazing!

Bloodroot ( S.canadensis ) seedpod

So what can homeowners do to encourage this interaction? Very simply, minimize use of chemicals in your yard that might negatively impact ant populations. Read  this article  for non-toxic methods of discouraging ants from entering your home. For Illinois ant identification pictures, go to this  Lake Forest College  site. To learn more about ants dispersing seeds, watch this you-tube video (ant skirmishes over seed around the 5-minute mark!)

Conservation@Home Featured Property: Marti Swanson

Marti Swanson was one of the first Conservation@Home certified properties in McHenry County, receiving the certification in May 2015. She has lived at the property in Ringwood since 1992 and placed a conservation easement on it in 2009. At just under 5 acres, the land consists of oak-hickory savanna and two man-made but spring-fed ponds. Her favorite part of living at this beautiful site and employing the Conservation@Home principles is watching the native plants returning from the seed bank as well as watching all of the wildlife. She advises homeowners to incorporate paths throughout their restored areas to invite access, as well as to act as a firebreak. Thanks to Marti for contributing to the health of the ecological community in McHenry County!

Remember that you can encourage homeowners, businesses, and other community groups to use the Conservation@Home ideas on their property, big or small. TLC is happy to offer presentations on C@H and many other environmental topics. Call 815-337-9502 or email Sarah Michehl at As the season progresses, email us updated pictures of your environmental features!

The Land Conservancy of McHenry County | | 
815-337-9502 |
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