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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!

Bittersweet

IMG_2367
Oriental bittersweet growing along the fence row at Smithfield Plantation

Bittersweet. Is it the sound of the name, or the name of the emotion that it evokes that is so winsome?

Fall is rushing toward closure, and with it– all the leaves in my woods are simultaneously falling from the sky and stacking up like old newspaper all around me. If you listen, you can hear it. The word is bittersweet. Fall is at once beautiful and melancholy…  the mesmerizing glory of scarlet leaves against a clear blue sky; the ominous swish of dark brown leaves crunching underfoot. Give and take. It’s almost over. 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 complements 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.

Coker’s Amanita

Amanita cokeri

This very large, poisonous Amanita has white warts on the cap and erupts from a large basal bulb. The gallery below shows two Coker’s Amanita mushrooms before they erupted from the bulb, and then again a few days later.  (The veil is evident on one of the mushrooms.)  The warts on the cap will eventually turn brown.

The hefty mushrooms in these photos were 6 to 10 inches in height. They were photographed in the mountains of Southwest Virginia in late summer.  Look for them coming up soon after rain in August and September.

Mari, with Coker's Amanita
Mari, with Coker’s Amanita in September

Thistle

Circium sp.

Thistle.  Is it a beautiful purple wildflower that generously produces nectar for butterflies and seeds for small birds like the American Goldfinch? Or, is it a treacherous weed of fields and pastures that is a scourge for farmers everywhere?  Can I paint a fair portrait?

IMG_8499It is both.  This prickly plant bears plump flower heads on tall stems, in various shades of pink, lilac, and purple. Pollinators flock to the nectar-rich blooms, and a field of thistle may be one of the best places I can think of to find an assortment of bees and butterflies at work. After thistle flowers whither, the ovary swells and produces a mass of silky, feathery seeds that are carried away by the wind. This pink pincushion of a flower is morphologically fascinating at each stage of its development, and therefore I will argue, it is lovely in its own way.

This may be the world's tallest bull thistle: 10 feet, 7 inches tall!
This may be the world’s tallest bull thistle: 10 feet, 7 inches tall! 

However, thistles have developed an elaborate defense system to prevent mammals from grazing on them. Practically every part of the plant is sharp and prickly. Ouch, don’t bump into one! This inconvenient feature of the plant makes it very hard to manage, especially if you have a lot of it on your property.  For farmers, thistles are simply noxious weeds that deserve eradication.

There are many species of thistles, including the locally common Bull thistle, Canada thistle, Plumeless thistle, Musk thistle, and Field thistle.  Some are native and some are introduced. You can find thistles blooming throughout the summer and they are are never hard to find! Ask any butterfly!

Click on any image for a larger view:

Sneezeweed

Helenium autumnale

Helenium autumnale, Sneezeweed

I really like this species epithet: autumnale!  It reminds me of what is happening right now, ever so subtly, in the great outdoors:  There are little signs of autumn coming–the black gums dropping bright red leaves on the forest floor…  the preying mantis growing large and more conspicuous on the prowl… the late summer flowers putting on their biggest show yet, in colors that welcome the upcoming fall season: brilliant golds, soft creams, and deep purples…  It all puts one in mind of a Robert Frost poem about autumn… but let’s not go there yet—it is just way too early for that!

Autumn Sneezeweed (or Helen’s Flower): Note how each ray flower of this aster is turned backward and bears a pretty scalloped edge with 3 lobes.  And the yellow center of disk flowers is globular, not flattened. It is just darling!

Sneezeweed is a native perennial that will grow 2-5 feet in height while flaunting numerous bright yellow, daisy-like blooms. The stem is winged; the leaves are dark green, alternate, lance-shaped and slightly toothed. This wildflower is so pretty that cultivars of it are commonly grown by gardeners looking to add some height and color to their fall gardens.

A late-summer and fall-blooming plant of moist places, sneezeweed likes to keep its feet wet in hot weather. I photographed these plants growing around the perimeter of Pandapas Pond, in Montgomery County, in late August; others were spotted around the same time in a sunny bog near Glen Alton.

From a medicinal perspective, sneezeweed was once dried to a powder and used to make snuff. Achoo!! Excuse me. The purpose of snuff was to cause sneezing, which we all know helps to rid the body of evil spirits!

Achoo!! More snuff please!

Kidneyleaf Grass-of-Parnassus

Parnassia asarifolia

A friend led me to a sphagnum bog in the mountains near Glen Alton, and that’s where we found a beautiful white wildflower in bloom:  the Grass of Parnassus!  Surrounding this plant was an immense diversity of other moisture-loving plants including sphagnum moss, sundews, cotton grass, horsetails, shining clubmoss, and alder.

IMG_0891First of all, this is not a grass!  This is a perennial herb with kidney-shaped basal leaves and tall flowering stems.  The leaves are 1 to 2 inches across and entire.  The flowering stems can grow up to 1.5 feet in height.

Each stem bears only one flower—but what a gem it is!  Five white petals outlined with strong greenish veins surround 5 prominent stamens with anthers.  Each of these anthers is then separated by 5 other smaller, sterile anthers! Together, the symphony of stamens and ornate petals conspire to create an exotic and arresting, late-summer flower.

Look for the Grass of Parnassus blooming near mountain swamps and seeps, and alongside streams, from late August thru October.  this plant is listed as endangered in Maryland and Kentucky.

a natural history gallery of wildflowers and mushrooms

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