If you look at the photo above, at first glance, the plant looks a bit like Solomon’s Seal, but it is glossier and the leaflets are more rounded. The stem is different too: it zigzags back and forth at every leaflet, and each stem is branched into two distinct parts. For two years now, I’ve been calling this little gem the “Mystery Plant”, because I could identify it. Part of my problem was that I could never find it in bloom
While I was looking for answers among my collection of photos, I found some images of a plant that I thought at the time was Sessile Bellwort, or Wild Oats. The photos were taken in the spring, in the woods, at the base of Brush Mountain in Blacksburg. At that time, the plant was sporting the characteristic, pendant yellow flowers of the bellworts. Then I found some photos taken later in the summer, in that very same place, and those photos showed the shiny green, branched version of “Solomon’s Seal”–what I had been calling my Mystery Plant! With a little help from my field guides, I can now connect these two sets of photos. The plants are, in fact, a bellwort–and the leaves, in fact, are sessile, but this is actually a new species for my list. This is Mountain Bellwort!
In summertime, the eye-catching leaves of mountain bellwort are dark green, glossy and rounded at the base. The leaves lack a petiole and instead attach directly to the stem (sessile). They have fairly strong parallel venation and the central midvein forms a deep grove in the middle of the leaf. To further distinguish it from Sessile Bellwort, note that the stem of Mountain Bellwort is lightly hairy.
Mountain bellwort can be found growing in mountain woodlands. It blooms in April and May, even before the leaves fully develop. At that stage, the plant looks distinctly like Sessile Bellwort (or Wild Oats) and it produces a creamy yellow, drooping flower that appears to be made up of six elongated petals. (These petals are more-appropriately called tepals: three of them are petals and three are sepals.) Later in the summer, the flower will give way to an oddly-shaped fruit capsule– it actually looks like a small, three-sided green football! See the illustration to the right and the photos below.
The photos do a much better job of explaining what this plant really looks like at various stages in its life history. I’m just so glad to finally have a name for it! So, add Mountain Bellwort to the list of different bellworts found in our part of Southwest Virginia: Sessile Bellwort, Perfoliate Bellwort, Largeflower Bellwort, and now Mountain Bellwort! Ta da!
Mystery solved! Click any photo to open a larger viewer.
Plant Illustration above: 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: 519.