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

Sweet Everlasting

Now here’s a great name for a flower if I ever did hear one.  Sweet Everlasting! What a perfect name!

Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium

The flowers of Sweet Everlasting are a bit odd because they are dry to the touch, even when new.  That’s because the tiny flowers are wrapped in layers of dry, white bracts. Deep inside these layers is a very inconspicuous disk of yellow to brown flowers (this is an aster believe it or not). You have to look hard to see the disk. Later in the season the bracts will spread out as the seeds ripen, creating an even prettier display of showy white buttons. Being already dried, these flowers make great (ever-lasting) additions to flower arrangements and can be used in other decorative ways.

Sweet Everlasting
Sweet Everlasting

The flowers occur in small clusters and look like unopened buds at the top of the plant. The narrow (linear) leaves of the plant are soft and wooly, and somewhat grayish-white in appearance. Look closely and you’ll see that the needle-shaped leaves have wavy edges. The leaves can be 1 to 3 inches in length; the overall plant height is 6 to 30 inches.

Sweet Everlasting is an annual or biennial.  It first comes up as a basal rosette and later produces a tall stem that terminates in a branching flower stalk. The entire stalk can be gray-green to solid white due to a coating of tiny hairs. This is a plant that demands to be touched!

This plant has many other common names, including Fuzzy Gussy and Sweet White Balsam. It was also known as Rabbit Tobacco, and it was smoked and chewed by Native Americans and early pioneers. Medicinal uses include sedative, diuretic, astringent, and cold-symptom and pain reliever. This plant sounds like a medicinal masterpiece, and to top it off it smells like maple syrup when crushed! Sweet!

Look for Sweet Everlasting growing in dry fields. I found these out at Murphy’s Farm in Craig County in early September. A similar local species, Pearly Everlasting, has globe-shaped flowers that look like little pearls. Pussytoes is also related.

Nodding Ladies’ Tresses

Spiranthes cernua

Ladies tresses (Spiranthes cernua)

Twist and shout!  Luckily the bright white of these tiny orchids help them to stand out in the grass and weeds, otherwise they would be easy to miss in September meadows.  They stand only 4 to 12 inches in height.

Nodding Ladies’ Tresses orchids bear their tiny flowers in a “double, intertwined” spiraling fashion along the stem.  The entire inflorescence starts off as an elegant twist of buds, and then each tubular flower unfurls slowly from the bottom to the top. The lower lip of the flowers are almost clear, or crystalline. The flowers tend to angle downward, hence the name “nodding”.  And because the flowers “spiral” along the stem like the old-fashioned long curls of ladies long ago, they received the name “ladies tresses”.

The leaves are generally not visible at bloom time, but if they are, look for one or two small leaves at the base of the flower stalk. They will be grasslike, with smooth margins.

This species prefers to keep its feet wet. Look for it in bogs, wet woods, near seeps, and in disturbed places.

Just for comparison’s sake, check out the flowers of Slender Ladies Tresses (also known as Green-lipped Ladies Tresses) here–they are quite similar, but the flowers are borne in a single spiral, not double.

Yellow Ladies Tresses
Spiranthes ochroleuca

A similar species, Yellow Ladies Tresses, occurs in dryer, open habitats. The lower lip of the flower (the labellum) has a wavy edge (crenelated) and is often marked with a yellow throat. The individual flowers are coated in tiny hairs that are difficult to see.

This group of plants were found growing in the fields at Masey Gap (on top of the bald at Grayson Highlands StatePark) in late August.