Squirrel Corn

Dicentra canadensis

Note the finely dissected leaves of this early spring ephemeral–so pretty, dainty, and fern-like! The leaves actually look very similar to Dutchman’s Breeches! But this is Squirrel Corn, so named because the bulbs of the plants look like little corn kernels. (See the illustration in the gallery below.)

Like Dutchman’s Breeches, Squirrel Corn has small white flowers that dangle from a raceme above the leaves. But instead of dangling “pantaloons”, these flowers are distinctly heart-shaped and more-closely resemble Bleeding Hearts.

Look for this plant in hardwood forests on rich soils with rocky outcrops. I found these plants growing along Rock Castle Creek Gorge in April.  They were not in bloom when I saw them, hence the “borrowed photo” above from Wikipedia.

Learn more about how to discern these two lookalikes.

Dicentra canadensis, Squirrel Corn, Photo credit: By Fritzflohrreynolds – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org

Mountain Lettuce

Saxifraga micranthidifolia or Micranthes micranthidifolia

Last weekend, on Easter Sunday, we stopped in for a walk at Rock Castle Gorge near the Blue Ridge Parkway. Loads of wildflowers were in bloom, but I did find a new one (new for me at least) that caught my eye as we ascended the gorge trail. I knew it was a saxifrage of some kind, but it was bigger than others I’ve seen before. Each time I saw it, it was growing close to, if not actually in the stream bed.

Bright green, with succulent leaves, I wasn’t totally surprised to later learn that it is called “Mountain Lettuce” or “Brook Lettuce”. Both describe the plant and its habitat well.

The very handy book “Wildflowers of Tennessee and the Southern Appalachians” describes Brook Lettuce as perennial, with basal leaves up to 8 inches long, oblong, sharply toothed, tapering to a winged petiole. The tiny flowers about one-quarter inch wide, with 5 white petals, each with a pair of yellow marks at the base. The inflorescence is branched, forming a large open panicle. Mountain Lettuce habitat is wet cliffs and mountain brooks; bloom time is April-June.

As for the “lettuce” part of the common name, apparently this plant was eaten as a salad green in times gone by and is still gathered by foragers now. It can grow up to three feet in height, making for quite a salad! 🙂

Check out the photos!

Carolina Elephant’s Foot

Carolina Elephant’s Foot or Leafy Elephantfoot

Elephantopus carolinianus

elephantsfootTake a look at this late summer/early fall wildflower. It is a very unusual aster!

Notice how each stem is terminated by three leafy bracts and a cluster of tiny blossoms?

From a distance, it looks like each cluster is one circle of tiny white or lavender ray flowers, but upon close inspection you’ll see it is just the opposite. This aster has no ray flowers at all. The cluster you see is comprised of several disk flowers grouped together. The corolla of each disk has 5 thin lobes.

The large basal leaves, which may be absent, give the plant its name, Elephant’s Foot.  The leaves can grow up to 8 inches in length. There are also alternating stem leaves that clasp the tall pubescent flowering stem. The dark green, hairy leaves are roughly elliptical in shape.

Although these plants were photographed in North Carolina, this species is common in Virginia and in much of the Southeastern U.S. Bloom time is August through October in open woods.

Spring 2016 is here

IMG_7362
Bloodroot

It was a deliciously early spring here in southwest Virginia.  At my house, where I have a small woodland surrounding my home, I had Hepatica and Bloodroot flowers blooming on March 17th!  That’s early! Trout Lilies were open in all their yellow splendor by March 2oth!  Not far behind were the pink flowers of Allegheny Spurge –a gorgeous wild ground cover that for me is a fond reminder of springtime in Mississippi forests.  By March 27th, some of my favorites, Twin Leaf and Dutchman’s Breeches, were in full flower too.  So much excitement, so early in the season! Even though I couldn’t get out to the local forests, I was able to snap some photos right here in my woods. See the gallery below if you need a reminder of what these little ephemerals look like.

Wild Ginger came up next, and then Virginia Bluebells; Heartleaf, Trillium and Solomon’s Seal poked their heads out too.  In early April, Skunk Cabbage was already past flowering and fully leafed out! Springtime was looking mighty fine!

But then- you guessed it- the cold came back last weekend. 😦

Ugh!  The temperatures dropped into the 20’s, and there were several days of gusty winds, deep frost, and even an inch or two of snow! Talk about a demoralizing turn of events…this was going to be quite a set-back!

And it was.  Many new leaves, buds, and flowers were burned by the freeze.  Many will have to start over 😦 . But if there’s one thing you can learn from observing nature, it is the power of resilience.  Just three days after all that bad weather, today I found new redwhite, and yellow trillium in bloom! Morels are even up.  It’s spring again!

So here’s to second chances, and to more wildflower adventures ahead!  I promise to get out more, and I will definitely post more often.  I hope you’ll be around to share my adventures in the months ahead (and vice versa).  Stay in touch!                               -Gloria

Click any photo to open the gallery.

American Wintergreen or Eastern Teaberry

Gaultheria procumbens

American Wintergreen fruit
American Wintergreen fruit

Pictured here is a little wildflower that has been sitting out in the cold all winter, holding fast to its tiny red berries.  As the plant’s common name implies, the round to elliptical, shiny leaves of American winterberry stay green all winter.  The cherry-red fruit persists as well.

Wintergreen is technically a low-growing shrub, although at 3 to 6 inches in height, that fact is easy to overlook. It spreads across the forest floor by rhizomes, and is common in hardwood and pine forests.

But let’s get down to the important part: can you eat these attractive little fruits? Sort of!  It turns out that the fruit, leaves, and branches of wintergreen impart a nice, mint flavor (think Teaberry gum) when casually chewed. They can also be boiled to make tea. However, eating the leaves outright is not advised.

At one time, the aromatic “oil of wintergreen” was derived from this plant and used to make flavorings and medicines. Teas made from wintergreen were often used for general pain relief– that’s because a key component of the plant is actually an aspirin-like compound.

Flowering time for wintergreen is summer.  The flowers are small, white, nodding, and resemble the flowers of other heaths, like blueberries. Click on any of the photos below for a closer view.

Horse Nettle

Solanum carolinense

Horse nettle is a perennial native that is a member of the potato family of plants. You may recognize the flower and leaves as bearing some similarities to common garden vegetables like potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplant. The flowers are star-shaped, white to purple in color, with 5 lobes.  A prominent yellow center contains a group of long anthers.

Horse nettle has spiny stems and leaves and is therefore sometimes called “Tred-softly”.  The 3-5 inch leaves are alternately arranged and irregularly lobed and toothed. And because it bears yellow tomato-like fruits that are very poisonous,  it is sometimes called Devil’s Tomato.

You will typically find horse nettle growing in waste places or along fences rows in pastures and fields.  They reach 2-3 feet in height and can be found throughout the growing season in the South. The ripened fruit persists long after the leaves have faded and are a common site in winter fields.

Related plants include Bittersweet Nightshade and Ground Cherry.

Turtlehead

Chelone

Turtlehead
Turtlehead

Fishmouth, snakemouth, turtlehead…  The common names of this flower come from the 2-lipped shape, which calls to mind an animal’s gaping mouth. The pink, red or white flowers are borne on a spike at the top of the plant.  The leaves are opposite, ovate to lanceolate, and have lightly toothed margins.

Turtlehead enjoys life on the edge of stream banks or in wet forests.  It is a perennial plant in the snapdragon family with a late summer to fall blooming season.  Teas made from turtlehead were once used to treat skin irritations and gastrointestinal maladies.

Turtlehead
Turtlehead