Twin Leaf Flower

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. The images are organized by species and date, and usually include close-ups of leaves, stems and flowers along with basic natural history information. 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.

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 searched. If you would just like to browse what is here, try scanning the archive in the left sidebar.

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

Welcome to Virginia Wildflowers! Enjoy your visit!

Rusty seeds of Ironweed

Ironweed

Veronia 

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This very tall, late-summer flower is ubiquitous in our part of VIrginia.  The small, deep purple flowers begin to bloom in fields and along roadsides in August. The spectacular show of color continues through fall.

Ironweed is a perennial wildflower, and a member of the Aster family. The leaves of the plant are elliptic to lanceolate and in the case of  New York ironweed (shown here, I think), the leaves have a finely toothed margin. There are several other species of ironwood recognized in the genus Veronia. The typical habitat for them is moist areas–in ditches, seeps, and moist thickets.

The name “ironweed” comes from the characteristic stems, which are very tough and can persist right through the winter.  Some say the name also refers to the stems, flowers and seeds, which age with time to a “rusty” color.  Look for this coloration as you scan the photographs below.

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Great Blue Lobelia

Great Blue Lobelia

Lobelia siphilitica

Great Blue Lobelia with Cardinal Flower
Great Blue Lobelia with Cardinal Flower

It is a late summer treat to see cardinal flower and great blue lobelia in full bloom together. Sometimes called “blue cardinal flower”, great blue lobelia resembles red cardinal flower, (Lobelia cardinalis), in stature, habitat, and structure. Both of these plants are tall wetland species with colorful flowers borne on terminal racemes. Their tube-shaped flowers have a lower lip divided into three lobes and an upper lip divided into two lobes. The large leaves of great blue lobelia are alternate, lanceolate, serrate and sessile.

If left untouched, great blue lobelia will grow unbranched and reach up to 3 or 4 feet in height.  However, if deer manage to browse them back, the flowers will be borne on shorter, branched racemes.

Great blue lobelia is not an edible plant. It is an emetic–meaning it will cause vomiting. Long ago it was thought to be medicinally useful as a cure for syphilis, hense the species name L. siphilitica.

Hummingbirds, insects and people are attracted to this beautiful flower. If you have a wet place in your yard, collect some seeds in early October and plant them right away for enjoyment next summer. Once started in the right place, the plants will self-sow.

Cranefly Orchid

Cranefly Orchid or Crippled Cranefly

Tipularia discolor

Cranefly Orchid
Cranefly Orchid

It is mid-August, and there is a mysterious orchid blooming in the woods right now. It is tall and delicate, oddly conspicuous, yet almost invisible to the eye. It is called the Crane-fly Orchid.

Like Putty-root Orchid, the crane-fly orchid has a 2-part life cycle. In the fall, each plant pushes up a single, oval leaf that is green above and purple below. Sometimes the surface of the leaf is spotted. The leaf stays green all winter and then dies back completely by May or June. Two months later, when there is no longer any sign of the original leaf, a flower stalk emerges from the ground and grows up to 18 inches in height. By late August or September, the stalk is resplendent with up to 40 small orchid flowers.

Cranefly Orchid
Cranefly Orchid

All the features of the flowers are so fine that they appear like the spindly legs of a cranefly, hence the first common name.  And because the flowers are somewhat asymmetrical, the twisted shape explains the origin of the second common name for the plant, which is crippled cranefly.

But what about the color of the orchid? They are commonly described as translucent, with a hue that hovers between pink and brown. Personally, the color really reminds me of another exotic local, the Lily-leaved Twayblade.

A final common name for this native perennial is Elfin Spur. The term must refer to the diminutive size of the individual flowers, and the long, odd spur that protrudes from the back of each one.

If you have a patient eye, look for the cranefly orchid growing in late summer in the mixed hardwood forests of Southwest Virginia. It likes rich, acidic soil. Colonies thrive on shaded stream banks or in other damp woodland locations.

Illustration of the Cranefly Orchid thanks to: USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. Vol. 1: 573.

Flowering Spurge

Flowering Spurge

Euphorbia corollata

Flowering Spurge
Flowering Spurge

Look at these dainty white flowers suspended in a loose cluster like Baby’s Breath!  What looks like a 5-petalled flower is actually not–the white structures you see are really bracts. There are super-tiny flowers cradled within these bracts that are nearly impossible to see!

The leaves of Flowering Spurge
The alternate leaves of Flowering Spurge

You might first recognize the leaves of flowering spurge as being like a garden-variety Euphorbia. The leaves are simple, entire, elongated ovals that are arranged alternately on the lower stem. Further up the plant, a whorl of similar leaves announces the start of the branched, flowering stems.

If you choose to pick Flowering Spurge for a wildflower arrangement (you can, it is quite prevalent locally), the plant quickly releases a sticky milk (latex) that can irritate your skin and eyes. So be careful with it! And if you choose to consume it, be warned again of its poisonous nature: as a medicinal plant it is famous for its effectiveness in causing “the trots”. In fact, alternate common names  for this native wildflower include Go Quick and Purging Root! :)

Flowering Spurge grows up to 3 feet in height and can be found growing in open fields (prairie habitat) and along roadsides all along the east coast of the U.S.

The leaves and flowers of snakeroot

White Snakeroot

Ageratina altissima (Eupatorium rugosum)

This is a poisonous plant that is native to North America. The plants grow to about 3-4 ft.; the very small white flowers are born at the top of the plant in loose clusters that might remind you of boneset or a white ageratum. The leaves are opposite, ovate to cordate, and toothed, with long petioles.

White snakeroot, Ageratina altissima

White snakeroot is responsible for a kind of human poisoning called “milk sickness”.  People who drink the milk or eat the meat of  cattle that have consumed a lot of snakeroot will suffer severely and may even die as a result of the toxin (tremetol). Thousands of early settlers who were unfamiliar with this plant died as a result of milk poisoning. The plants are also poisonous to other animals, including horses and sheep. Surprisingly, the plant gets its name from the fact that it was once mistakenly believed to be a good remedy for snakebites.

Snakeroot is a perennial herb that likes to grow in moist, shady places.  I found this colony of plants growing at the wood’s edge, in partial shade, on the floodplain of Tom’s Creek in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Bloom time is late summer and fall. Other common names include tall boneset and white sanicle.

Ground Cherry or Chinese Lantern

Ground Cherry or Chinese Lantern

Physalis

The genus Physalis includes many species in the nightshade family (Solanaceae).  There are about 25+ species in North America.  The fruit of all these species is similar to a small tomato, but it is enclosed in a husk, like a tomatilla. The papery covering over the fruit resembles a lantern, and so ground cherry also goes by another common name, Chinese Lantern.

The pendant ground cherry flower is yellow, with a brownish center. Reach down to lift the downward-facing flower up, and you will see that the pretty corolla has five parts with pointed lobes.

The ground cherry is native to Virginia and can be found blooming along roadsides and in waste places in late summer.  Many members of the nightshade family have poisonous leaves and stems, but most have fruits that are edible.

Physalis has been used in chinese medicine for  sore throats and infections.  One species, Physalis subglabrata, is considered a hallucinogen.

Great Blue Lobelia with Cardinal Flower

Cardinal Flower

Lobelia cardinalis

It’s showtime—and this late-summer bloomer is as showy a flower as they come! Cardinal flower, a native perennial, produces bright red flowers on tall, unbranched stems. The flowers are produced on a raceme, which opens from the bottom first.

Each individual flower is bright red and tubular, with 5 deep lobes that are obvious on first inspection. The reproductive organs of the flower are clustered into a grayish head at the top of the tube. Similar to great blue lobelia, the lower petal of each flower forms a 3-lobed lip at the entrance to the flower. The overall effect of the shape of the flower is that of a flying bird. Lovely!

The stems are unbranched and grow up to a meter tall. The leaves are lance-shaped with serrated margins; leaves vary in size up to 6 inches long.

Cardinal flower grows in sun to part-shade.  It prefers wet places, like streambanks and soggy ditches along the sides of roads. Hummingbirds are attracted to the bright red color of these flowers and consequently are important pollinators. The flowers are also visited by butterflies, especially swallowtails.

Historically, the plant gets its name from the color of the vestments of Catholic cardinals. As a medicinal plant, teas were made from the roots and leaves, and then used to treat respiratory and intestinal disorders. As a wildlife food, mammals generally avoid eating cardinal flower because it produces a milky, white latex that is toxic.

See the gallery below for photos taken in August, in Montgomery and Giles Counties in VIrginia.

a natural history gallery of wildflowers and mushrooms

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