aka large-leaved cucumber tree
edit: I later learned that this species is not considered native to Maryland; it is mostly found from Kentucky south to the Gulf of Mexico coast.
A few weeks ago I was hiking in the woods around Belmont Manor and Historic Park* in central Maryland, near the Patapsco River, when I stumbled on a stand of trees with enormous leaves. Given the size of the leaves – they looked almost tropical – and given how many invasive species I’ve found in that area, I assumed it was alien. So I took a few quick pictures, and researched it later.
Never assume. This crazy tree (you almost have to see it to believe it) is indeed native to the area. It grows mostly in the southern Appalachians, with scattered populations elsewhere (like the Maryland Piedmont) but is uncommon within its range. It’s an understory tree (a tall one) that suffers from competition from other trees. It doesn’t reproduce very quickly, either. So to stumble across one stand consisting of a few dozen individuals was quite remarkable.
Just a few days ago, I was back in that area hiking with a friend, and to our joy we saw a few of the trees in bloom.
The leaves can grow to two feet long – the longest leaf of any native North American tree. And the flowers can grow to one foot wide – the largest flower of any native North American plant.
By the way, you’ll never see them as shown in the first photo, unless your friend holds a branch down with a trekking pole, like mine did so I could get that picture.
*If you ever visit Belmont, stop in the nature center and borrow a copy of the wildflower guide – my graduation project for the Maryland Master Naturalist program. Once it’s finished, that is. In another month or two…