Geraniums, Native and Alien

It seems like after a slow start, everything is blooming all at once. It’s hard to keep up with it all. Last Tuesday, for example, I saw thirty species of plants flowering in a few locations from Old Anglers Inn to Lock 10. Among them were two geraniums, one native and one alien.

Geranium maculatum (wild geranium, Geraniaceae) is a clump-forming perennial forb that grows up to two and a half feet tall in moist soils. You can find it in open woodlands, meadows, and woodland edges. There’s a good amount of it growing off the Billy Goat B trail, along a footpath that leads up to the canal from about the trail midpoint, where it crosses a small stream.

Wild geranium is found in a few parts of the easternmost Great Plains and the South, but mostly in the mid-Atlantic, Midwest, New England, and eastern Canada. In Maryland look for it everywhere except the southern parts of the coastal plain. It’s a great plant for the garden: it spreads, but not aggressively, is pest-free, and rabbit-proof (my new gold standard for native forbs).

The other geranium native to the Maryland Piedmont, G. carolinianum (Carolina cranesbill) can also be found in the Carderock-Marsden Tract area, but I haven’t seen it yet this year. It usually starts blooming a few weeks after wild geranium. Note that the flowers are smaller and the foliage more finely cut.

The Maryland Biodiversity Project shows 11 species of geraniums in the state, probably seven of which can be found in the Piedmont. Five of them are aliens. This one is G. molle, which I found growing next to the parking lot at C&O Canal Lock 10. As is often the case, I was looking for something else when I found it (more on that in a future post). In a frequently-mown area this plant is quite short and branched, as you’d expect, but left to grow it still doesn’t get as tall as G. maculatum. The flowers are smaller, too, and a more lurid shade of pink, and the leaves more intricately cut.

Rainy Earth Day Blues

Typical Mid-Atlantic spring weather today, cool and rainy. Not that I’m complaining: we need the rain, and I need to stay indoors and catch up on a huge backlog of photos and posts to write. But it does make me feel blue, so here’s an antidote: azure bluets. More on them in a few days. I just wanted to post this picture.

The Third Large White Flower

Twinleaf and bloodroot  are well past blooming now, but their cousin mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum, Berberidaceae) is just getting started.

All three have large white flowers (one inch across or more) with yellow stamens; the flowers are borne singly on long stems. Twinleaf flowers usually have eight petals and stamens, bloodroot has eight to sixteen petals and numerous stamens, and mayapple has six to nine petals and numerous stamens.

young mayapple plants



bloodroot leaves




Bloodroot leaves, when older and fully opened, are sometimes confused with mayapple leaves.








Younger bloodroot leaves are sometimes not as elaborately lobed; possibly they could be mistaken for twinleaf, but it’s not likely.




Mayapple reproduction is mostly vegetative: the rhizomes form colonies, often vast, from which individual stems with single leaves emerge. But these plants don’t bloom. If you find some blooming, look at the plants and you’ll see that the stem forks and bears two leaves, with the flower growing at the junction. Only the two-leaved specimens will have flowers, though not all of them will.

Maypple can be found in rich, moist woodlands from the easternmost parts of the Great Plains to the Atlantic, and the Gulf of Mexico into Ontario and Quebec. It’s endangered in Florida.

Mid-April Update

rue anemone blooming in a patch of violet wood sorrel leaves (no flowers yet) at Rachel Carson Conservation Park

Along the Billy Goat B trail on Tuesday, there were still plenty of spring beauties, star chickweed, and field chickweed. While Virginia bluebells are waning fast, wild blue phlox is past its peak but still going strong. Plenty of Coville’s phacelia, but I wasn’t able to find any Miami mist. In a few places along footpaths between the trail and the towpath you can find wild geranium in full bloom, too. Close to the river a few stands of golden Alexanders are open.

azure bluets, violet wood sorrel, and wild pinks in dappled shade near Carderock

Small patches of violet wood sorrel are blooming along the trail and in the greater Carderock area, which is looking great, with plenty of azure bluets and wild pinks in the rocky areas. Plantain-leaved pussytoes are blooming, too, and dwarf cinquefoil is just starting. Bastard toadflax is budding up and a few days from opening. A few days behind it, perhaps, will be rattlesnake weed, also budding up. Sessile bellwort is done already, and the yellow violets are mostly done, but there’s plenty of creamy violet still. Toadshade is hanging on, but most of the other ephemerals there are done (except spring beauty, of course).

Look up: flowering dogwood and pawpaw are in full bloom.

flower buds on pinxter azalea

Over at Rachel Carson Conservation Park, the pinxter azaleas and showy orchis are in bud; the former will be open within a few days, the orchis in maybe a week. There are a few stands of azure bluets by the river, and gobs of rue anemone and spring beauty everywhere. Look for mayapples and jack-in-the-pulpit, too. There are several nice stands of perfoliate bellwort along the Fern Valley trail.

I also found a new-to-me shrub that I haven’t identified yet. Hopefully it’s something good and interesting and I can write about it in a few days.

perfoliate bellwort at RCCP

Our Earliest Aster

In much the same habitat as Virginia bluebells grows our earliest-blooming aster family species: Packera aurea (formerly Senecio aureus), commonly known as golden ragwort or golden groundsel. It starts blooming about the same time as the bluebells, but in the Potomac Gorge area seems to hit peak bloom just after the bluebells do.

Though they grow together, I’ve noticed that golden ragwort may have a bit more tolerance for slightly drier soils than the bluebells do. In some areas I can see that the land closest to the river is carpeted in bluebells, while a short distance away – on the other side of the trail, for example, where the land starts sloping upward – the carpet changes to ragwort.

Golden ragwort is a colony-forming perennial forb that grows to about two and a half feet tall. The flowers are borne on a corymb ( a more or less flat-topped cluster) and have the typical aster family arrangement of ray flowers and disk flowers.


The basal leaves are oval with a cordate base and have scalloped edges and long petioles.




The stem leaves are completely different: narrower, deeply lobed, and sessile or clasping.



Golden ragwort is one of 57 Packera species native to North America. Look for it growing in moist to wet woodlands in the mid-West, mid-Atlantic, New England, a few parts of the South, and eastern Canada.

Two Showy Aliens

So far this year I’ve noted about twenty alien wildflower species blooming in the Piedmont. Checking through old records, I see that nearly one in four wildflowers I’ve found has been alien. It’s a depressing statistic.

Like the natives, these alien wildflowers run the gamut from tiny and inconspicuous to large and showy. The latter are usually garden escapees, of course – naturalized species originally planted for their ornamental qualities.

Of these, the two star-of-Bethlehem species, Ornithogalum umbellatum and O. nutans, might be the showiest. They are classified in either the Liliaceae or Asparagaceae, depending on which authority you consult.

O. umbellatum, common star-of-Bethlehem or nap-at-noon, is a bulb-forming perennial native to Eurasia, with a typical monocot look: the white-striped, dark green leaves are basal, long, and narrow, so that before flowering the plant looks like a clump of grass. The bright white flowers have six tepals with green stripes on the bottoms, and six stamens; the inflorescence is a corymb. It really is a handsome plant. I used to see it fairly often along the Billy Goat trails, but haven’t in the past few years, so I only have this old iPhone photo of the flowers to show.

Common star-of-Bethlehem is found in all but three Maryland counties, and is widespread in North America, occurring in all areas except parts of the mountainous west, and in much of Canada as well. It’s considered a class C noxious weed in Alabama and potentially invasive, not banned in Connecticut.

The second species, O. nutans (nodding star-of-Bethlehem), I see more of every year, even though it’s not quite as widespread in Maryland or North America. The leaves are similar to those of O. umbellatum, but are somewhat succulent with more pronounced parallel veins. The flowers are white, but a bit dull-looking, with a silvery-gray cast, and they’re borne on racemes rather than corymbs. Standing at almost two feet high, O. nutans is rather larger than O. umbellatum, and more easily spotted at a distance. The species is considered invasive in the mid-Atlantic.


nodding star-of-Bethlehem growing with golden ragwort and wild blue phlox along Billy Goat C

One More Phacelia

Three of the approximately 170 North American Phacelia species can be found in Maryland: Coville’s phacelia, small-flowered phacelia (P. dubia), and Miami mist, aka fringed phacelia or purple scorpion-weed (P. purshii). The second and third of these are both classified S3/watchlist:

Vulnerable/Watchlist—At moderate risk of extinction or extirpation due to a fairly restricted range, relatively few populations or occurrences, recent and widespread declines, threats, or other factors. Typically occurring in 21-80 populations.*

P. purshii is found in Prince Geroge’s, Montgomery, Frederick, Washington, and Garret counties. P dubia has a simliar but smaller range. I haven’t seen this species myself yet, but am always watching for it at this time of year.

P. purshii, though, I see every year, along the Billy Goat B and C trails. There are a few populations in other areas east of the Appalachians, but for the most part this species is found in the Ohio River basin.

Like Coville’s phacelia, Miami mist is an annual, though it gets a little taller (maybe as tall as a foot and a half). The flowers are fairly small, but markedly larger than those of Coville’s phacelia. It has typical Phacelia traits: hairy leaves, hairy stem, hairy calyces. The five-lobed flowers are borne in a helicoid cyme, though the shape isn’t as pronounced as in some of the western Hydrophylloideae species (pictured here).

*Maryland DNR