Braking for Wildflowers Again

Steve and I were in Joshua Tree National Park recently. There wasn’t a super bloom this year, but there were still a few wildflowers. Mostly they were the Sonoran and Mojave desert plants that I wrote about this time last year, and the year before that.

Heading south on Pinto Basin Road toward the Cholla Garden, I spotted large, dark green leaves on plants growing by the side of the road. What the heck, is that datura? I thought. Then, “Steve, slow down!”

And he did, and pulled over, and I jumped out and had a look.

Yes, they were Datura, but all the flowers were spent or closed. So the next day we went back, and drove slowly (whenever no cars were behind) until I spotted some open flowers. And he pulled over again, and had a little catnap in the car while I got on my belly on the sandy roadside shoulder and snapped some pictures.

There are two species of datura in JOTR, D. wrightii (sacred thorn-apple) and D. discolor (desert thorn-apple). This one is the former. Other common names for the various Datura species include jimsonweed and angel’s trumpet; there are dozens more, including moon lily, moon flower, belladonna, devil’s trumpet, deadly nightshade, thorn apple, mad apple, hairy jimson weed, stink weed, green dragon and locoweed1, and toluaca2.

These spectacular flowers measure about 15 cm long, and the plants can grow to a meter or more tall and almost two meters wide. All parts of the plants are poisonous, not unusual for plants in the Solanaceae.

The Solanaceae, like the Apiaceae (see Tasty Umbellifers and Poisonous Umbellifers), is notable for producing both foods (eg, tomato, potato, chili pepper, and eggplant) and poisons (eg, belladonna, tobacco, mandrake, and henbane).

We have a datura here in the Maryland piedmont, D. stramonium [right], but it’s an invasive alien that can form large, nearly monocultural stands. There’s an especially bad infestation on an islet in the Potomac just upstream of the American Legion bridge [below].


An Eastern Belly Flower

It’s March 20, the vernal equinox, and I’m sitting by the woodstove, watching the snow fall. Four to eight inches are predicted by tomorrow night, possibly more, and I just got back from a trip to the Southwest and haven’t been out botanizing at home in about two weeks. Friends are posting pictures of bloodroot and Dutchman’s breeches that are blooming nearby, but it’ll be a few days before I can go out hunting.

look how tiny it is, next to that maple leaf!

Instead I’m looking at my pictures of Erigenia bulbosa, which, other than skunk cabbage, is the earliest blooming forb in the Maryland piedmont. This diminutive perennial plant grows only about 10 centimeters tall, barely poking above the leaves on the forest flower at bloom time. It’s a true ephemeral: after blooming, the finely divided compound leaves open a little further and the plant will grow a little taller, but it dies back before spring is over.

The inflorescence is a compound umbel (an umbel of umbels). The individual flowers are minute, comprising five white petals and five stamens, whose anthers start red but quickly turn black.

I found these blooming on February 28 this year, which is about as early as I’ve seen it. The blooming period lasts about a month. Look for it in rich, moist woodlands, especially near rivers.

Erigenia means “born early”; bulbosa is for the (edible) corm from which the plant emerges. Around here it’s called harbinger-of-spring, or sometimes pepper-and-salt (for the anthers and petals); older, less common names include turkey-pea, turkey-foot, and ground-nut1. The genus is monotypic (meaning, it only has one species), and this might be the smallest plant in its family (Apiaceae).

It’s uncommon in Maryland (listed S3). The Maryland Biodiversity Project has records for it in the counties of Harford, Montgomery, and Washington. There are a few other occurrences of it east of the Appalachians (from northern North Carolina to southern New York), but mostly it’s a plant of the Midwest, where it ranges from central Alabama to central Michigan, and westward into eastern Kansas. In Wisconsin and New York it’s listed as endangered; in Pennsylvania, it’s threatened.

1The History and Folklore of North American Wildflowers, Timothy Coffey

Waking Up

Monday, March 5 – took a quick walk on the Cabin John Trail. Most of the green forbs were aliens, though the new foliage of a few ephemerals was coming up.

There was one small clump of round-lobe hepatica (Anemone americana; Ranunculaceae) with a few buds opening. It’s early, but not too early, for this species to be flowering.

And a few clumps of Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica; Boraginaceae), one of which was starting to bloom. This is quite early, but with the ephemerals I often see one or two blooming on either end of the bell curve. Peak bloom for bluebells is probably at least three weeks away.


More Teasers

Odd weather we’ve had this winter. Unusually cold on average, but with unusually warm days. Plants are emerging and budding up and some are blooming already, as I reported in the last post. Anyway, here’s more of what we can look forward to in the next month or so.

Jeffersonia diphylla (twinleaf; Berberidaceae)

I usually see these plants in large stands, and all the plants in a stand seem to flower at the same time, but the flowers only last a few days. I’m going to start watching for them in mid-March this year.

Packera aurea (golden ragwort; Asteraceae)

This is the same species I posted a picture of on Wednesday, with the purple buds. Such a perky thing. The first species in the Asteraceae to bloom ’round here.


Sanguinaria canadensis (bloodroot; Papaveraceae)

Since bloodroot grows from rhizomes, when there’s more than one plant they’re often in a line.



Erythronium americanum (trout lily; Liliaceae)




Erythronium albidum (white trout lily; Liliaceae)





Trillium sessile (toadshade; Liliaceae)

Honestly my love for this plant comes from that common name. This is peak bloom; the flower petals don’t spread open. Yellow flowering forms can be found near Carderock.


Stellaria pubera (star chickweed; Caryophyllaceae)

It’s all about those stamens. And fun fact: each flower has five petals. The petals are so deeply cleft that a single petal appears to be two petals.


Thalictrum thalictroides (rue anemone; Ranunculaceae)

In botanical Latin the suffix                “-oides” means “resembling”. So this species is “Thalictrum that looks like Thalictrum”. Thalictrum is “from thaliktron, a name used to describe a plant with divided leaves”.*

Mertensia virginica (Virginia bluebells; Boraginaceae)

These will be carpeting floodplains and other very moist-soil areas in less than a month.



Phlox divaricata (wild blue phlox; Polemoniaceae)

Wild blue phlox starts blooming at about the same time as Virginia bluebells, but they last longer. It’s a glorious sight when these two and golden ragwort fill the woods.


*California Plant Names: Latin and Greek Meanings and Derivations
A Dictionary of Botanical and Biographical Etymology
Compiled by Michael L. Charters

On the Last Day of Winter

Today is the first day of meteorological spring* (astronomical spring is still three weeks away), but as of yesterday, the 28th of February, the wildflower show had already begun along the Potomac. Barely.

Claytonia virginica (spring beauty; Montiaceae)

Just a few dozen of these were up in sheltered locations.

This one specimen of Packera aurea (golden ragwort; Asteraceae) already had well-developed buds. Often this species will retain leaves through the winter, and many low-lying leaves were visible, but I saw none of the tall growth yet. In the same location last year just a few flowers were open on March 23, with peak bloom about April 13; in 2015, I saw the first ones March 24, with peak bloom in mid-April.

Erigenia bulbosa (harbinger-of-spring; Apiaceae)

More about this in an upcoming post. Can you see it sheltering there under the maple leaf? That’s one plant with about 14 flowers!

A few alien species are starting to bloom: Veronica hederifolia (ivy-leaved speedwell) and Cardamine hirsuta (hairy bittercress).

And, I saw one clump of Mertensia virginica (Virginia bluebells) foliage emerging, but that makes a boring photo.

*more on meteorological seasons from NOAA


The earliest ephemerals are out and blooming a few hundred miles away, in South Carolina, but it’ll be a few more weeks before they start blooming here in the mid-Atlantic. Here’s a sneak preview of what’s to come, presented more or less in the order in which they bloom. All of these should be blooming by the end of March at the latest.

Erigenia bulbosa (harbinger-of-spring, pepper and salt; Apiaceae)

One of the first up, sometimes as early as late February. Look for it in moist woods but you have to be eagle-eyed to spot it (note the dime sitting there for scale). Just as I was finishing this post, a friend reported seeing harbinger blooming here in the Maryland Piedmont today!

Anemone americana (round-lobe hepatica; Ranunculaceae)

A hibernal plant; the leaves usually wither away by the time the flowers bloom, or soon after. If you see the leaves now, note the location and check back in a few weeks for the flowers.



Lindera benzoin (spicebush; Lauraceae)

Don’t forget to look up once in awhile! This very common understory shrub is one of the first plants to bloom in our area.


Arabidopsis lyrata (lyre-leaved rockcress; Brassicaceae)

This plant has a long bloom period, often starting early in the season. Look for it growing right on large rocks, as the common name suggests. The sight of a mass of these delicate blossoms dancing in even the slightest breeze fills me with joy.

Cardamine concatenata (cut-leaf toothwort; Brassicaceae)

Such a dainty thing.




Corydalis flavula (short-spurred corydalis and many other common names; Papaveraceae)

Another petite flower, easy to miss. You have to get very close to see all the ornate details.


Micranthes virginiensis (early saxifrage; Saxifragaceae)

This fine specimen is one of the largest I’ve seen. I usually find them in rocky places.


Dicentra canadensis (squirrel corn; Papaveraceae)

The delicate, lacy, ferny foliage is almost identical to that of Dutchman’s breeches; you have to see the plants flowering to tell them apart with confidence.


Dicentra cucullaria (Dutchman’s breeches; Papaveraceae)

From my limited observation, this species is usually waning when squirrel corn is just getting started. There’s a hillside on the Cabin John Trail that’s covered in these plants.

Next time, more teasers.

First Up

A few days ago I headed to Sugarloaf Mountain for my first botanizing session of 2018. I found lots more trailing arbutus, but it’s still in bud. I’ll keep checking.

Some of the aliens are starting to flower (veronicas, bittercresses), but otherwise the only plant blooming is skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus; Araceae). The two pointy things pictured here are spathes, modified leaves (bracts) that enclose the flowers, shown below. 


Skunk cabbage is a plant of wet places. When it’s not growing right in water, it’ll be in very wet soil. In a few weeks the leaves will start emerging and unfurling. A stand of bright green skunk cabbage is a cheery sight in early spring, but don’t step on them unless you want first-hand knowledge of how they got that common name.