The third target of my Washington County foray with B was Trillium erectum (red trillium, wake robin; Melanthiaceae).

There are 38 species of Trillium native to North America; eight of these are native to Maryland. T. erectum is found throughout New England, extending south mostly in the Appalachian Mountains as far south as northern Georgia, and there are a few populations in parts of the upper Midwest. In Maryland it’s found in scattered locations (have a look at the quad data from Maryland Biodiversity Project for details).

Here you can see (from the innermost parts outward) the three stigmas, six stamens, three petals, three sepals, and three bracts. Not leaves? That’s right: technically there are no above-ground leaves on trilliums. The three large structures are bracts (like the colorful parts of flowering dogwood and poinsettias). A bract is a modified leaf, found at the base of an inflorescence.  However, the bracts of trilliums do engage in photosynthesis. I’m not clear, then, on why they aren’t considered leaves, but there it is. Botany is weird.

The taxonomy of the trilliums is a bit unsettled. At first, Trillium was in the Liliaceae; later it was placed in its own family, Trilliaceae; then it was moved to Melanthiaceae (bunchflower family). Now some taxonomists are putting it back into Trilliaceae.


I found 37 different common names for this species, among them bathflower, bloody nose, bumblebee-root, daffy-down-lily, herb-true-love, red-benjamin, rule-of-three, true love, wild-piny, and wood-lily.  Makes me appreciate the work of Carl Linnaeus.

On Ferry Hill

When B and I went hunting two weeks ago, one of our targets was Primula meadia (eastern shootingstar; Primulaceae), currently on the Maryland DNR watchlist (S3). Shootingstar likes to grow on the rocky outcroppings along the Potomac River, like on  inaccessibly high rocks above the larkspur-filled ravine (see my previous post).  We found plenty of plants nearby, though.

In general, this species likes moist to dry soils in open, rocky woodlands.  When flowering, the plants are about a foot and a half tall; when not flowering, there is only a basal rosette of rather large leaves.


Shootingstar’s range appears to be from south central Texas north to Minnesota and Wisconsin, then eastward to Florida and New York. Here’s the map from BONAP:

The taxonomy of this species seems to be unsettled. Regional authorities Alan Weakley, Wesley Knapp, and Robert Naczi are calling it Primula meadia, but I see it online and even in recently published guidebooks as Dodecatheon meadia. You’ll find the latter name in all the classic guides.



This species has many common names, including American cowslip, Virginia cowslip, gentlemen-and-ladies, pride of Ohio, Indian-chief, lamb’s-noses, rooster heads, snake-heads, mosquito-bells, and prairie pointers.

First Ravine on the Left

Earlier this month B and I made a trip to Washington County to look for some wildflowers that aren’t found in the Potomac Gorge. Directions from fellow botanerds and a bit of poking around rewarded us with three new-to-me species.

This one is dwarf larkspur, Delphinium tricorne (Ranunculaceae).  There are 65 species of Delphinium native to North America, but only four of those are found east of the Mississippi, and only two in the mid-Atlantic.

Dwarf larkspur’s range includes the easternmost parts of the prairie states, the Midwest, parts of the South (especially the Appalachians), and the southernmost part of the mid-Atlantic.

It’s a plant of open, rocky woodlands with moist soils.  Look for it on bluffs and ravines along the Potomac River in Washington County.  Apparently there are records for it in the Potomac Gorge, but the most recent sighting there was in 1935; it’s not likely to be found there again.


The dark blue-purple color is typical, but dwarf larkspur can also be white and, apparently, bi-colored.


Right Under My Nose

One of my favorite places in C&O Canal NHP is the area known as Widewater, the part of the canal that lies between the Gold Mine Tract and Bear Island/Billy Goat A Trail. It’s incredibly peaceful and beautiful, with nifty rock formations and a wonderful variety of plants.


I grew up in Montgomery County, went to Great Falls often as a child, made my way there whenever I could as a teenager, always found time to hike there when back from college on short breaks… and I don’t know how many times in the past 9 years, since I started seriously hunting for wildflowers, I’ve been on that stretch of the canal. Close to a hundred, maybe? And yet it wasn’t until last year that I saw red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) there, blooming right under my nose on the banks of the canal.

Red Columbine is by far the most widespread of the twenty-two Aquilegia species native to the US and Canada, and the only one found east of the Mississippi River.  Its range includes New England, the mid-Atlantic, the upper South, the Midwest, and parts of the prairie states.  The plants like moist, rocky outcroppings or slopes in woodlands, or more open areas if they get enough water.  Obviously they love the combination of shade and water they get from growing on the steep southern bank of the canal at Widewater.


Aquilegia canadensis is in the Ranunculaceae, a family that includes many of our beloved native flowers (anemone, hepatica, meadow rue), and one spectacular flower that I saw in the wild for the first time last Friday. It’ll be the subject of my next post – come back soon!

Palmata, Pedata

Viola pedata

Last spring my friend B discovered a small population of bird’s foot violet (Viola pedata) near Great Falls.  This was exciting because it was the first reported sighting of the species in Montgomery County since the mid-20th century*.

Viola palmata


I went to the location a few days later and took some pictures. A few days after that, in a nearby but different location, I found a patch of similar-looking plants, but they had finished blooming. I had to wait a year to follow up…



…which I did last week. That second patch was good news/bad news: it was in full bloom, but it wasn’t bird’s foot violet. It was Viola palmata, aka early blue violet or wood violet,

Violet identification can be tricky, but V. palmata and V. pedata are pretty easy to tell apart. Here’s a quick primer.

Viola pedata


Have a look at the leaves: in both species they are dissected. V. pedata leaves will have anywhere from 5 to 11 narrow lobes.




Viola palmata



The leaves of Viola palmata are more variable. Two leaf types are shown here, one with lobes somewhat wider than V. pedata‘s, and the other with fewer, broader lobes.

Viola palmata

Viola palmata

a small colony of V. palmata in bloom.

Typically it’s better to ID species from flowers rather than leaves, so let’s look at those:

Viola pedata is on the left.  Note that it has an orange center, while Viola palmata, on the right, has hairs in the center (click on the pictures to zoom in).  V. pedata typically has two darker upper petals, but not always.

Viola pedata

In my (rather limited) experience, V. palmata is much more common than V. pedata in the Maryland piedmont.  Both species are found in dry, rocky woodlands, but V. palmata likes moister soils, too.  The stand that B found is on a sandy rock outcropping in the Gold Mine Tract.  If you find bird’s foot violet anywhere in the Maryland Piedmont, please leave a comment here!

*per Maryland Biodiversity Project