Welcome!

Virginia Wildflowers is a natural history photo gallery and casual field guide to wildflowers and mushrooms. I live in Southwest Virginia, so most of my photos were taken in this part of the state.

I’ve been taking photos of local wildflowers for three years now. I try to capture close-ups of leaves, stems and flowers, and then I post the photos along with some basic natural history information. In the spring and summer of 2015, I plan to finally get the species in order (at least roughly) by season, so they will be easier for all of us find.

My goal in making this site was to teach myself about native wildflowers in my home area.  An added benefit would be to help someone else (–maybe you?) learn the same. Drop me a note if you have a comment or question, and please feel free to correct my I.D. work if you think I’ve got something misidentified. This is a hobby for me and I’m always learning.

If you arrived here because you are looking for information about a specific plant, try using the search bar in the right sidebar. Common names and latin names can be entered there and searched. If you would just like to browse what is here, try scanning the archive in the left sidebar.

Most of these posts here contain photo gallery/slideshows, so be sure to click on the gallery to open a larger viewer.

Welcome to Virginia Wildflowers! Enjoy your visit!

Hepatica

Hepatica (Hepatica nobilis)

Three-lobed leaves that resemble the human liver! Hepatica! Liver leaf!  On the east coast, you may find this early-blooming spring wildflower in the sharp-leaved or round-leaved form.  And just to make it more complicated, they sometimes hybridize!

Here is a description of hepatica from Wikipedia: “Bisexual flowers with pink, purple, blue, or white sepals and three green bracts appear singly on hairy stems from late winter to spring. Butterflies, moths, bees, flies and beetles are known pollinators. The leaves are basal, leathery, and usually three-lobed, remaining over winter.”

Although the leaves you may find in early spring are darkly colored (last year’s leaf), the flowering season gives way to the production of new green leaves that are bright and very attractive.

Click on any photo to open the gallery:

Bloodroot

Sanguinaria canadensis

Here they come…like little soldiers rising from the earth. Bloodroot flowers!  Look how their arms are held tight to their sides as they pierce through the cold and damp of early March. These precious flowers are among the first to bloom in Southwest Virginia.

At my house, the emergence of bloodroot flowers is truly the first sign of spring. I have a little moss-covered grotto on the other side of our stream, and there in the grotto I have been planting tiny “starts” of native wildflowers. The inspiration to do this came from these native bloodroot plants –they were already there, growing happily under the limestone outcroppings when I bought the property a few years ago.

I have to say, I am regularly startled by the brilliant white of these flowers! Perhaps it is just the fact that they emerge so quickly from under a carpet of wet, brown leaves, at a time when nothing green has even considered popping up yet. The ground is still cold, and it is not entirely pleasant to be outside, and then– lo and behold, here come the happy, brilliant faces of bloodroot flowers!

At this time of year, the honey bees are hungry and out on their first flights. What a joy it must be for them to find these woodland flowers offering up nectar in an otherwise lifeless landscape!

Go out, go out–and welcome these woodland wonders.  I bet they are coming up in your neck of the woods too!

IMG_1880 IMG_1882

Trout Lily

Dogtooth Violet or Trout Lily

Erythronium americanum

I went for years without ever seeing a trout lily. They grow low to the ground and come up in the earliest part of spring, when the weather is still cold and unpredictable. Pushing up from under last year’s leaf pack, they are difficult to spot because the leaves are mottled, like the side of a trout, and the flower is small, delicate, and pale yellow. Trout Lilies are also called dogtooth violets, because the underground bulb of the plant is white and shaped like a dog’s tooth.

The reflexed petals of a Trout Lily

Depending on the time of day you see them, the flowers may not be open. They close each night, re-open in the morning, and need bright afternoon light to fully open to the reflexed position you will see in some of the photos here.

Last year, I discovered a significant patch of trout lilies on a wooded hillside in Blacksburg, Virginia. There were so many trout lilies in this one location, that you could not walk without stepping on them! They appeared in every size, from the smallest seedlings to relatively large, older plants with wide leaves, and tall flowers. From reading about them, I’ve learned that it can take seven years for a single plant to mature. So, finding a colony of them growing in the wild is something to be treasured.

Below is a collection of trout lily photographs from March of 2012. They came up, flowered, and went to seed–all in about three weeks time. True springtime ephemerals!

Click on any photo below to open a slideshow.

 

 

Skunk Cabbage

Symplocarpus foetidus

Skunk cabbage
Skunk cabbag
brownish-red skunk cabbage flower mottled with green
The brownish-red skunk cabbage flower is usually mottled with green; the outside part is called the “spathe”.

 

Early March. The snow is just melting off and the first warm rays of spring have begun. Step outside, and most of the plant world is still asleep.  The leaves on the ground are heavy and soggy, and beneath them the ground is still very cold. This is the time for early-evening woodcock dances– and for skunk cabbage flowers!

In late winter/early spring, you are likely to find the flowers of this herbaceous plant popping out of the ground in wetland areas.  The exotic, brownish-red flower comes up before the leaves are formed. The flower may be heavily mottled with green and maroon streaks and spots, and it is thick-skinned and leathery.

The spadix with small flowers
The the club-like spadix can be found inside the spathe.

The flower has two parts–the curved exterior part is called the spathe–it looks like something alien (!); the interior, club-like part is called the spadix. Skunk cabbage gets its name from the fact that the plant smells pretty darn skunky if you break off one of the leaves and take a whiff. The flowers are likewise odiferous, but at least in their case, the strong odor of rotting flesh is functional in attracting pollinators–like carrion flies. I’ve seen honey bees peek inside too.

Skunk cabbage
Skunk cabbage coming up in a wet woodland

By early April, the flowers start to die back just as the bright green leaves simultaneously erupt from the ground. Once that happens, you can spot a patch of skunk cabbage from a good distance away because the tall (15-inch) plants are so obvious.

You can use this sentinel species to help find other wetland-loving wildflowers. Last spring, while I was driving on the Blue Ridge Parkway, I stopped near a patch of skunk cabbage that I saw near the side of the road. Nearby, I found loads of trout lilies, trilliums, and false hellebore coming up in the same damp area. Eureka!

Even though the attractive, “lettuce-like” leaves of skunk cabbage look tasty, you really should refrain from snacking on this plant while you are out in the woods! :) Skunk cabbage is poisonous to mammals, and if eaten, the leaves will burn your mouth because they contain calcium oxalate crystals.

As you can imagine, this is a plant with a lot of interesting “local” names. Wikipedia provides a short list that you might enjoy: Clumpfoot Cabbage (it can be deep-rooted), Foetid Pothos (pungent!), Meadow Cabbage, Skunk Cabbage, Swamp Cabbage, and Polecat Weed.  Jeez, you can almost smell it from here!

Click any image to open the slide show.

Bittersweet

IMG_2367
Oriental bittersweet growing along the fence row at Smithfield Plantation

Bittersweet. Fall is rushing toward closure, and with it– the leaves are falling from the sky and stacking up like piles of newspaper around me. If you listen, you can hear it. The change of seasons: bittersweet. Fall is at once beautiful and melancholy…  the mesmerizing glory of scarlet leaves against a clear blue sky…the ominous crunch of dry brown leaves underfoot. It’s almost over. It’s bittersweet.

In the Sunday air, a note of winter. Bundled under layers, I walk our dog along farm fence rows, looking earnestly for the last doses of color on the landscape. It could be hiding anywhere. A stray pink knapweed here, a gallant goldenrod still holding up there..a fading fall aster hidden beneath a bush. But for the most part, the spectacle of virginia wildflowers is over for another season, and I’m sad to see it go.

Maybe it’s in my desperation, or maybe it is the way that the late afternoon light can turn ordinary things into extraordinary delights, but suddenly my hungry eyes are appeased by the sight of bittersweet growing along a fence. It is covering the fence completely in some places, and climbing over trees and shrubs in others. And now that I see it, it is everywhere. The vine is saturated with orange-red seeds that are surrounded by deep yellow pods. The attractive fruit literally glimmers in the late afternoon sun. I have to forget for just a moment that this beautiful spectacle is compliments of a terribly invasive plant. I have to forget, because it is SO beautiful.

Like its name, bittersweet is a bit of a blessing and a curse: the colorful, fall fruit of this vine is a favorite food of birds and small mammals. But because of this, bittersweet seeds are spread far and wide by animal droppings. This seed dispersal strategy turns out to be a strong factor in why the plant is such a successful invader. The seed germinates easily, and the aggressive vine can (and does!) crowd out native plants by forming thickets or climbing up and strangling its host.

Bittersweet leaf
Bittersweet leaf

This time of year, it is relatively easy to identify bittersweet. The fruits turn yellow at the end of the summer.  When the seed pods finally begin to open in October, the red “berries” are exposed. At any distance, the red and yellow fruits are quite distinctive in the fall. But be aware that because the plant is dioecious, the male plants do not bear fruit. That’s when it could be useful to recognize the leaves instead–but unfortunately they are quite variable in shape and size.  The leaves can be round or oblong, and the tips can taper to a point. The leaf margin is slightly toothed, and sizes vary from 2 to 5 inches. Click on any photo below to explore the gallery.

There IS a native form of bittersweet in North America called American bittersweet, or Celastrus scandens. The introduced species is known as Oriental bittersweet, or Celastrus orbiculatus. They can be hard to tell apart, but the native plant has fruit at the tips of the vines only, while the invasive form bears fruit all along the branches.

Teasel

Dipsacus

Teasel

As summer wanes and fall sets in for certain, blooming flowers are harder to come by.  But in drying fields and along fencerows and roadsides, the tall, spiny remnants of teasel delight the eye.  Earlier in the summer, teasel produces inconspicuous white, pink or purple flowers on an oval cone of spines.  The visually interesting flower heads, borne on prickly stems, will persist in their dry state through the upcoming winter.

Teasel is not native—it was originally introduced from Europe and is now considered an invasive weed in much of North America. On the plus side, seeds of teasel are a favorite food of American Goldfinches, and the plant is sometimes grown as an ornamental for use in flower arrangements. There are several species. Historically, the dried seedheads of one variety were once used to comb or “tease” the nap on wool fabrics.

Bloom time is summer and fall.

Bittersweet Nightshade

Solanum dulcamara

Ripening berries of bittersweet nightshade
Ripening berries of bittersweet nightshade

I grew up calling this semi-woody vine deadly nightshade, but it turns out I was technically wrong. This is bittersweet nightshade. It goes by many other names too, depending on where you live, so it is probably better to call this one by its species name, Solanum dulcamara, at least for now.

The purple flowers of bittersweet nightshade are shaped like an exploding star: the petals arch backwards and expose bright yellow stamens. The green, egg-shaped berries turn orange, and then bright red when they are ripe. The total effect of a ripening vine can be quite beautiful in the fall.

Bittersweet nightshade is an introduced species that is now considered invasive.  It is common in riparian areas and wetlands, but also in waste areas and along roads and fencerows. All parts of the plant are moderately poisonous, but because it tastes bad, most animals will avoid eating it.  (A few bird species eat the berries and disperse the seeds.)

Gardeners beware: children may be attracted to the colorful berries of nightshade and want to eat them, so ignoring this weed in the home garden could result in accidental poisoning.

Locally in Virginia, we have another plant that is commonly called “bittersweet”, but it is in a different genus altogether (Celastrus).  Other common names of bittersweet nightshade include deadly nightshade, bitter nightshade, climbing nightshade, trailing nightshade and poisonberry.

a natural history gallery of wildflowers and mushrooms

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