Lizard’s Tail

One of those stands of irises that I keep writing about is in a depression in the woods that in most years is a vernal pond. Last year was dry, though, and the rain we’ve had so far this year doesn’t seem enough to bring groundwater levels back to normal.

At any rate, that sometimes-vernal pond has only a few irises, but it’s absolutely dominated by this plant.

This is Saururus cernuus, commonly known as lizard’s tail, water dragon, and breast weed. It’s a wetland obligate, meaning that it grows almost exclusively in wetlands.*

There are two other stands I know of, one near the Carderock climbing wall, and the other near the Old Angler’s Inn footbridge, which is where I took these photos. This stand seems to be in shade for much, but not all, of the day, while the other stands are pretty much in full shade, all the time.

Lizard’s tail forms large colonies by rhizomes. The plants stand up to three feet tall, with large, heart-shaped leaves and curved spikes of white flowers. Each flower consists of stamens and a single pistil, without petals or sepals.

Saururus is a genus with only two species; the other, S. chinensis, is native to Asia. The Saururaceae is a small family, with only seven species in five genera. S. cernuus ranges from Texas to Quebec, though it’s missing from much of New England. In Maryland it’s found in every county except for Frederick and Garret; I wouldn’t be surprised if it grows in those places as well, but no one’s reported it yet. It’s endangered in Connecticut and Rhode Island, but listed as weedy by the Southern Weed Science Society.

For once, the common name has some relation to the botanical name: Saururus is from the Greek words sauros (lizard) and oura (tail). The specific epithet cernuus means nodding or drooping.

*official definition: Plants that occur almost always (estimated probability >99%) in wetlands under natural conditions, but which may also occur rarely (estimated probability <1%) in non-wetlands (from )

One That Makes Me Smile

view from directly overhead

Somehow I’ve managed to miss seeing this plant in bloom for two seasons, so Sunday morning, after seeing friends posting pictures of it on various on-line forums, I took a little walk to “Erica Alley”, a rocky place on the Cabin John Trail that’s full of mountain laurels and blueberries. And sure enough, there it was, blooming among the leaf litter on a slope above the creek.

ant’s eye view: camera on the ground, lens propped up, downslope of the plants

This short, evergreen forb grows in dry to moist, rocky, acidic soils in woodlands east of the Mississippi, ranging from northern parts of the Deep South to southern Maine and Michigan, and Ontario and Quebec. (It’s also found in one county in the Florida panhandle and in southern Arizona.)

It’s endangered in Illinois and Maine, and exploitably vulnerable in New York.

Chimaphila maculatum goes by many common names, including spotted/striped wintergreen, spotted/striped pipsissewa, spotted/striped prince’s pine, prince’s cone, prince’s plume, dragon’s tongue, lion’s-tongue, piperidge, ratsbane, rat’s-vein, rheumatism-root, waxflower, whiteleaf, wild-arsenic, and who knows how many others.

princess pine (Dendrolycopodium obscurum, Lycopodiaceae)

In another bit of name confusion, around here I sometimes hear it called “prince’s pine”, which sounds a lot like “princess pine” – an entirely different plant, but the two are often found growing together.

Common names. What a headache.

A literal translation of Chimaphila would be “winter-loving”, referring to the evergreen habit; isn’t even closely related to that other wintergreen, Gaultheria procumbens. Confusingly, maculatum means “spotted”, which clearly this plant isn’t, though it is sort of striped, what with the pale green to white coloring of the mid-vein and larger lateral veins.

Two to five flowers (usually) are borne on a cyme. Typical of plants in the Ericaceae, the flowers have five sepals, five petals (strongly reflexed), ten stamens, and one pistil. The plants spread by rhizomes, so if there’s one, there should be more a short distance away.


This species is currently placed in the Ericaceae (heath family), but many on-line sources and older texts still refer to it being in the Pyrolaceae. In some taxonomic systems Pyrolaceae has become Pyroloideae, a subfamily of Ericaceae.

I really can’t explain why some flowers are more aesthetically pleasing than others, but this charming little thing always makes me smile. I’m so glad I saw it this year.

some of the common names listed above were found in The History and Folklore of North American Wildflowers, Timothy Coffey (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993)


I believe this is a bar-winged skimmer or a great blue skimmer, or maybe a blue dasher but I’m not sure.  I submitted an ID request to an excellent resource: Will post correct ID once I get it. Anyway it’s been awhile since I posted a dragonfly picture, so here you go.

update: it’s a great blue skimmer (Libellula vibrans)

Breezy Monday Morning

Asclepias syriaca (common milkweed) is just starting to bloom along the river

It’s ten o’clock Monday morning, and although the temperature is only about 82 °F on the Billy Goat B trail, I’m pouring sweat from the high humidity.

Verbena urticifolia (white vervain) deigned to hold still for a split second





Fortunately, there’s a nice breeze blowing to keep me cool.

Pycnanthemum tenuifolium (narrow-leaved mountain mint) starting to open






Hiker Elizabeth with her sixteen pound daypack loves it.

Ruellia caroliniensis (hairy wild petunia) peeking through some Chasmanthium latifolium (woodoats)






Photographer Elizabeth, trying to get nice flower pics, is deeply annoyed.

Circaea lutetiana (enchanter’s nightshade)






Seemed like I couldn’t get good pictures of anything. I had gone to shoot enchanter’s nightshade, a medium-sized, shade-loving forb with a wispy stem and tiny flowers, easily moved by the breeze.




The flower has an unusual structure, with only two petals, so deeply cleft that they appear to be four, two sepals, two stamens, one style, and an inferior ovary.

an unusually colorful fleabane (probably Erigeron annuus)


Other plants currently blooming include:

  • fringed loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata)
  • white avens (Geum canadense)
  • trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans)
  • honewort (Cryptotaenia canadensis)
  • bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix)
  • water willow (Justicia americana)
  • lizard’s tail (Saururus cernuus)
  • blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium)
  • common cattail (Typha latifolia)
  • and even a few goldenrod! (Solidago species)

Monotropa uniflora (ghost pipes) turn fully upward towards the end of blooming

Summer Heat

Astronomically speaking, it’s still spring, but for some people summer starts with the arrival of truly hot weather, or with Memorial Day. For me, summer starts with the first sighting of the hot orange-red flowers of trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans, Bignoniaceae). Look at this magnificent specimen dominating a snag by the Potomac (click on the photo).  —>

This species grows impressively long vines (40 feet, by some account), 
with impressively large flowers (up to four inches long).

And with that, I’m off to check on the irises, and see what else is happening along the river this week.



Walking along the canal between stands of irises the other day I caught a whiff of something delightfully fragrant, so I had a look ’round. Never did find that flower, but I did find a hophornbeam.

Hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) is a small tree in the birch family (Betulaceae) that’s native to eastern North America, ranging from northern Florida north into Canada and west into parts of the Great Plains. In Maryland hophornbeam grows in the piedmont and west, with occasional occurrences in the coastal plain. Two other species of Ostrya are native to North America, but they’re found only in the desert Southwest.


The flowers are imperfect and inconspicuous catkins; female and male flowers are borne on the same tree. It’s the fruit that gets noticed, nice little nutlets that resemble common hops.


It’s a handsome tree, with small, doubly serrated dark green leaves and somewhat shaggy bark. Look for it growing in dry woodlands, usually as an understory tree. Given more sun it can reach heights of 50 feet or more. (The national champion is 74 feet tall.)



Just for comparison, here’s a tree with truly shaggy bark: shagbark hickory (Carya ovata, Juglandaceae).

Taking Flight

“Wings,” I thought, zooming in on a not-too-clear picture of tiny purple flowers. Those little flowers look like birds about to take off. Could this plant be in the pea family (Fabaceae)?



It does look a little like redbud (Cercis canadensis).




Or naked-flower tick-trefoil (Hylodesmum nudiflorum).




But just a little. And the leaves are all wrong for something fabaceous. Orchid? The flower is a little orchid-like, but the plant just doesn’t look orchidy.



So for the first time in many months I opened Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide and used the keys to identify it. And then I went back to the site to get better pictures.



It’s Polygala polygama, commonly known as racemed milkwort, bitter milkwort, and purple milkwort.




Petaloid sepals, often called wings, are characteristic of flowers in the Polygalaceae. Typically the flowers have three petals and five sepals. The petals are fused, and the lower one is called the keel (as it is in fabaceous flowers), and it’s frequently fringed or lobed. Three of the five sepals look more or less like typical sepals, while two lateral ones are more petal-shaped and colored.

index finger for size

Racemed milkwort is a short biennial forb that likes full sun and sandy soils. The flowers are no more than a quarter inch across. It’s native to eastern North America, where it grows in scattered populations in the South and Mid-Atlantic; it’s more common in the upper Midwest and New England. The Maryland Biodiversity Project has records for it in Allegany, Washington, Montgomery, Prince Georges, and Charles counties. The Maryland DNR lists it as S1 (highly state rare) and threatened. It’s also threatened in Kentucky and Ohio, and endangered in Iowa and Pennsylvania.

This species is one of eleven milkworts found in Maryland. All are native, and most are found only in the coastal plain.