We were out hunting for morels when we came across this somewhat obscure spring ephemeral, Virginia Pennywort. These plants were growing along the edge of the forest on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Floyd, Virginia.
Pennywort is difficult to spot in the springtime forest because it is very short and non-descript. It only reaches about 6 inches in height, so it is easily camouflaged by the dry leaf litter that still covers the forest floor in April. The small, grayish, spatulate leaves are much-reduced for a flowering plant, and this immediately made me wonder if it truly photosynthesizes– or maybe lives “in association” with something else? As it turns out, Virginia pennywort is in a symbiotic with a mycorrhizal fungus, which in turn is also symbiotic with another plant. Amazing! To see more examples of local flowering plants that rely on “alternative energy sources” for their nutrition, check out these entries: Indian pipe, Pinesap, and Squawroot.
Pennywort’s purplish-white flowers are arranged–usually in threes–in a circular manner around the fleshy stem. The stiff appearance of the flowers may remind you of Stiff Gentian or Closed Gentian— that’s because Virginia Pennywort is a member of the Gentian Family!
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