It’s easy to miss Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium), as its flower is only about ½” in diameter and the plant only reaches a height of six to twelve inches. Blue-eyed Grass is a member of the Iris family, not, as its name implies, a member of the Grass family, although it does have stiff, grass-like leaves. Dark lines on its petals and sepals may well serve as nectar guides, leading pollinators to the yellow center. Each blossom is open for only a day at most. Typically you find Blue-eyed grass growing in sunny, wet fields, often on elevated soil — Thoreau noted that if you followed Blue-eyed Grass through a wet meadow,
you could keep your feet dry.
Yellow lady’s slipper, Cypripedium pubescens, is in flower in central Vermont/New Hampshire, gracing woodlands and bogs with its beauty. This plant has what is called a mycorrhizal association, a relationship with a fungus that colonizes its roots. This mutually beneficial association provides the fungus with carbohydrates from its host plant, the yellow lady’s slipper, and enables the yellow lady’s slipper to have increased mineral absorption due to the fungus’s large surface area. More than 90 percent of plant species are believed to form a symbiotic arrangement with beneficial soil fungi.
If you find a blossoming Trout Lily in the woods it is quite likely that you will also find one of its most common pollinators, the Red-necked False Blister Beetle (Asclera ruficollis), on it. Ardent pollen eaters, this group of beetles obtain their common name because many species cause blisters when pinched or squashed against skin. Adults mate on flower heads during pollen feeding. Both sexes feed on pollen, which acts as an attractant, but the female will not accept the male until her gut is packed full of pollen. She stores the pollen in a special intestinal sack in which an enzyme causes the pollen to partially germinate — this causes the indigestible covering of the pollen grain to rupture. She then digests the contents of the pollen grain, which she uses to manufacture eggs.
Marsh Marigold’s (Caltha palustris) common name is partially accurate – it does grow in marshes, but it is not closely related to marigolds. It is also known as Cowslip, a name which is also misleading, as it doesn’t refer to cows losing their footing when walking on this plant. According to The Secrets of Wildflowers by Jack Sanders, the word literally means “cow slop,” or cow dung, as both the English cowslip, for which it was named, as well as cow paddies were found in the same pastures. People used to believe that butter derived its yellow coloring from the Cowslip flowers that cows ate. In fact, like many other plants in the Buttercup family, it contains irritants that cause most grazers, including cows, to avoid the plant. Humans do eat the young leaves, but boil them several times to rid them of acrid irritants that could be poisonous.
Many shrubs really come into their own in the spring when they flower — not necessarily big, flashy flowers, but more subtle and delicate blossoms, with beautiful colors and designs. Beaked Hazel (Corylus cornuta) is such a shrub. Its female flowers are now blooming – exquisite little maroon flowers with magenta highlights and pistils that curl this way and that in hopes of catching pollen. One advantage to flowering before leaves are out is that there is less interference with pollen dispersal. The entire flower is less than 1/4” in diameter.
Hepatica, a member of the Buttercup family, is one of the first woodland wildflowers to appear in the spring, sometimes when there is still snow on the ground. It is currently flowering in northern New England, as much as a month earlier than usual. Hepatica’s stem and flower buds are covered with dense, glistening, silvery hairs. Some botanists theorize that these hairs may, in fact, help the plant retain heat during cold March and April days and nights. Others see them as a deterrent to crawling insects, such as ants, which steal their nectar, given the chance — flying insects, including early flies, bees and butterflies, are more efficient pollinators. (Even if Hepatica isn’t visited by insects, it can fertilize itself.) Named after the Greek word for liver (“hepar”),due to its three-lobed, evergreen leaves which resemble the shape of a human liver, Hepatica, also known as Liverwort, was thought to be effective in treating liver disease.
Speckled alder’s flowers are one of the first flowers to open in the spring. Look for this shrub near streams and ponds. One of its most distinctive features at this time of year is the presence of last year’s fruit, which look like miniature woody cones. Also present through the winter, but opening now, are male and female flowers, or catkins. The pendulous male flowers open and extend when their pollen is ready to be dispersed. Above them are the tiny, maroon female flowers, which are exquisite when viewed through a hand lens. Even though they flower at the same time on the same shrub, the position of the female flowers above the male flowers discourages self-pollination and encourages cross-pollination in this member of the Birch family.
The fruits of the Hophornbeam tree (Ostrya virginiana), also known as Ironwood for its strong,hard wood, are drooping clusters of papery, bladder-like sacs each containing a nutlet. The “hop” portion of its name refers to the resemblance of its fruits to those of true hops that are used in the production of beer. Hornbeam refers to a related European tree whose wood was used to yoke oxen; therefore, its American counterpart wood was also used as a “beam” with which to yoke “horned” beasts of burden.
Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), also known as Checkerberry and Eastern Teaberry, is an aromatic, evergreen plant that creeps along the ground. Its single, white flowers develop into bright red berries which deer and grouse consume with relish. Not surprisingly, these berries taste like oil of wintergreen. The active ingredient in this oil is synthesized and used as a flavoring in chewing gum, toothpaste, breath fresheners, candy, and medicines, including Pepto Bismol. This same ingredient, methyl salicate, is related to aspirin, which explains why Native Americans chewed and made a tea from the leaves and berries of winterberry to alleviate pain.
American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), is a perennial plant in the Aralia / Ivy family, commonly used in Chinese and herbal medicine. It is found in hardwood forests in New England, but due to over-harvesting, is quite rare (Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett are said to have made large sums of money in ginseng trafficking). It has a light tan, gnarled root that often looks like a human body with stringy shoots for arms and legs. If a plant looked like a part of the human body, it used to be assumed that it could cure that part. Because ginseng’s root resembles the entire human body, it was used to treat just about any ailment. American ginseng was used traditionally by Native Americans as a stimulant and to treat headaches, fever, indigestion, and infertility. Today it is associated with alternative treatment for diabetes, cancer, colds and flu, ADHD, immune system enhancement and sexual impotency.
Beechdrops (Epifagus virginiana) are parasitic plants which obtain nutrients from the American beech tree. They insert a root-like structure called a haustorium into a beech root, absorbing enough nutrition to sustain themselves and produce flowers between August and October. Beechdrops belong to a family of plants (Broomrape), all members of which live as root parasites. Being annuals, beechdrops don’t live long enough to damage their host trees. Because they lack chlorophyll and obvious leaves (their leaves are scale-like and pressed flat against their stem), beechdrops are easily overlooked. Keep an eye on the base of American beech trees for these 5 – 18-inch plants which are flowering right now.
White baneberry (Actaea alba) is most conspicuous in late summer, when its white berries tipped with a black dot are evident. It is not hard to see why it is also called Doll’s Eyes – the berries are said to resemble the ceramic eyes of old-fashioned china dolls. The entire plant is poisonous – just a few berries can cause dizziness and nausea in humans. However, they are eaten by ruffed grouse, yellow-bellied sapsuckers and American robins. White-footed mice and southern red-backed voles also dine on them. The leaves and flowers of its relative, red baneberry (Actaea rubra), closely resemble white baneberry, but in the fall it’s easy to tell them apart by the color of their berries (see 7/10/11 blog post) , as reflected in their common names.
Creeping snowberry’s name says it all. This perennial plant can be found growing in acidic soil, creeping along the forest floor, sometimes forming an expansive carpet of greenery. Tucked amongst its tiny leaves this time of year are snow-white berries which developed from greenish-white flowers. Both the leaves and the berries smell mildly like wintergreen. Creeping snowberry belongs in the Heath family, along with blueberries, huckleberries and cranberries. In fact, other than the bristles on the underside of its leaves, the leaves of creeping snowberry could easily be mistaken for small cranberry. The fruit is actually edible (it also tastes a bit like winterberry), but you will have to compete with deer, hares, grouse, robins and bears for it.
Rattlesnake plantains get their name from their rosette of broad, egg-shaped leaves, which are similar in shape to those of plantain, a common lawn weed. Although they are called plantains, they are actually orchids. There are four species of rattlesnake plantains in New England, and the differences between them are subtle. The pictured checkered rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera tesselata) has leaves with soft green markings, whereas the other three species have silver-white central stripes and/or markings. Sometimes the species hybridize, making identification challenging.
The very first Indian pipes are starting to poke up through the forest floor. Lacking chlorophyll, this flowering plant cannot make its own food, but instead is parasitic and relies on getting energy from fungi under the ground that , in turn, derive their energy from the trees they are connected to. You can tell if a flower has been pollinated by Indian pipe’s position. Prior to pollination, the flower head bends down towards the ground; after pollination, its stem straightens, and the flower faces skyward.
Red baneberry, Actaea rubra, can be found growing in moist, shady woodlands, or even roadsides, where it is often not noticed until its red berries have formed in mid-summer. Although the berries are poisonous to humans, they are not to birds, which are the primary disperser of baneberry seeds. In addition to robins, brown thrashers, catbirds, sapsuckers and grouse, small mammals such as chipmunks, voles, squirrels and nice eat the fruit. Several species of birds that consume baneberry eat the fruit but void the seeds, while some of the small mammals remove and eat the seeds leaving the pulp. You may be familiar with a common relative, white baneberry, which produces white berries that are referred to as “doll’s eyes.” Native Americans used the juice from the fruits of various baneberry species to poison their arrows.