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.

The Iris ID Odyssey Continues

It worked. With a friend’s help and introduction I was able to get a collecting permit. Unfortunately by that time Stand #1 had finished flowering, but I did collect one flower from Stand #2, and one capsule from each stand.

Here’s a summary of my notes. (Refer to the last four posts from this past May for details, particularly the one from May 27.)

Stand #1
No flowers remaining. Most flowering stems appear to have been cropped about halfway up. One untouched stem was flopped over [I. virginica]; the other (cropped) stems were upright [I. versicolor or I. virginica var. shrevei]. The collected capsule was conspicuously beaked [I. versicolor], measured 70mm long by 13mm wide, and was broadly triangular in cross section.The spathe associated with this capsule was dry and papery [I. versicolor]. The seeds were underripe: still green, with shiny outsides that did not appear to be corky [I. versicolor] and may or may not have been pitted.

Stand #1: capsule with spathe

Stand #1: seeds







Stand #2
The collected flower had sepals measuring 55mm, 55mm, and 56mm long, and the corresponding petals measured 38mm, 38mm, and 39mm long, or 2/3 the length of the sepals [either species], The style arms appeared to have auricles at the bases [I. virginica]. The collected capsule measured 70mm long by 11mm wide and was not beaked [I. virginica by implication?]. The associated spathe was slightly dry and papery [I. versicolor]. Other observed (not collected) capsules were somewhat or not at all beaked, and their associated spathes appeared to be drying and papery [I. versicolor]. The seeds were underripe: still green, with shiny outsides that did not appear to be corky [I. versicolor] and may or may not have been pitted.

Stand #2: style arm, petal, sepal

Stand #2: two style arms

Stand #2: capsule

Stand #2: seeds



















from Flora of North America:

Iris versicolor
…Capsules often persistent over winter, ovoid to oblong-ellipsoid, conspicuously beaked, obtusely triangular in cross section, 1.5–6 cm, tardily dehiscent. Seeds dark brown, D-shaped, 5–8 mm, shiny, thin, hard, regularly pebbled, not corky.

Iris virginica
…Capsules ovoid, ellipsoid, or long-cylindric, trigonal or polygonal in cross section, 3–6 × 1–2 cm. Seeds in 2 rows per locule, pale brown, usually D-shaped, 5–8 mm, pitted, corky….Plants of Iris virginica from the southeastern and south-central states having stems 2–3-branched and seldom falling to the ground after flowering, and with capsules long-cylindric have been recognized as var. shrevei.

So, I’m still not sure. Just looking at the flowers (and later, the pictures), I want to say that Stand #1 is I. virginica var. shrevei, and Stand #2 is I. versicolor. My instinct says they have to be I. versicolor (“go with the more commonly occurring species” is my rule). But I’m trying to be methodical about this.

obligatory flower pic

I spent some time Wednesday morning in the Brookside Gardens library, reading about both these species in several different books, and taking lots of notes. If you’re truly interested in irises, keep reading…




from The World of Irises, Bee Wharburton, Editor, Melba Hamblen, Assistant Editor; The American Iris Society Wichita, Kansas 1978:

Iris Virginica and Versicolor
These two members of the Laevigatae are similar and have long been confused; they share the common name “Great Blue Flag.” They can ordinarily be separated in that virginica is overall a more slender plant, with full-size standards quite as long as the falls, while those of versicolor are shorter and rather bluntish. Seeds of virginica have a dull, corky look, while seedcoats of versicolor are brittle, thin, and shiny. Both are absolutely at home in shallow water or wet marsh conditions… [p. 304]

Iris versicolor has the highest chromosome number known in the genus iris [sic], 2n=108. Edgar Anderson (1936) demonstrated that it originated as an amphidiploid hybrid of I. virginica (2n=70) and I. setosa var. interior (2n=38) in preglacial or interglacial time. It is essentially a tetraploid hybrid with exceptional fertility and vigor. This is a famous case of the origin of a new species by hybridization. [p. 305]


from The World of Iridaceae, Clive Innes; Holly Gate International Ltd., 1985:

I. versicolor
Plants 20-80cm. tall. Leaves forming clumps, erect or curved, 1-2cm. wide, stained purplish at base. Stem branched, several-flowered, stout and erect. Flowers 6-8cm. diam., varying shades of purple to lavender veined yellow, green or white. Falls spreading, 5-9cm. long, the blade ovate, crestless, purple or violet veined deeper, haft broad, greenish yellow veined purplish. Standards erect, narrow, spathulate, shorter than falls, purple veined deeper or whitish, purple veined towards narrow base. Style branches lilac with whitish margins, broadly linear. Anthers blue. Flowering May to July. From Canada (eastern areas) to USA (southern states on east) on high ground and low, in moist marshy areas — very widespread. [p. 243]

I. virginica
Plans 30-100cm. tall. Leaves soft, green, buff to pale brownish at bases, 1-3cm. wide. Stem simple, rarely branched, arching, becoming almost pendent after flowering. Perianth tube very short, scarcely more than 1cm. long. Flowers 1-4 to a stem, 6-8cm. diam., lavender, blue, bluish-purple, violet — a white form is also known. Falls spreading, the blade oblong or ovate, 3-4cm. wide, blue with central yellow blotch, somewhat hairy, the haft yellowish-orange streaked. Standards erect, obovate or spathulate, 5-6cm. long (slightly longer than falls), 1-2.5cm. wide, wavy-edged or notched, purple. Anthers white or yellow. Flowering May to July. From USA (Louisiana, Virginia, Florida and east Texas in marshy, swampy areas). [p. 244]


from The Iris, Brian Mathew; Universe Books, 1981:

I. versicolor Linn. This robust clump-forming plant has stout creeping rhizomes giving rise to erect or arching leaves about 1-2cm wide and stems 20-180cm in height, equalling or slightly exceeding the leaves. The branching flower stems carry several flowers, each about 6-8cm in diameter and usually some shade of violet, blue-purple, reddish-purple, lavender, or dull slatey-purple. The falls are widely spreading and often have a greenish-yellow blotch at the center of the ovate blade, surrounded by a white area variegated with purple veins, this continuing down the haft. … I. versicolor is a very widespread plant in eastern North America from eastern Canada southwards to Texas. It grows n marshes, swamps, wet meadows and on lake shores and flowers in May, June or July. [p. 104]

I. virginica Linn. The Southern Blue Flag. This is sometimes considered by botanists to be inseparable from I. versicolor. [emphasis mine] I am not familiar with either in the wild and would not care to judge. Currently it is treated as a separate species by several American Floras. As its common name suggests, it has bluer flowers an is confined to a more southerly part of the United States. The height varies, 30-100cm, and the stems are often arching, falling to the ground in the fruiting stage. The leaves, 1-3cm wide, are soft and flopping over at the tips. In typical I. virginica there may be one short branch on the stem but usually it is simple. The one to four flowers are 6-8cm in diameter with spreading falls of blue, violet, lilac, lavender, or occasionally pinkish-lavender. In the centre of the 3-4cm wide, oblong or obovate blade there is a prominent yellow hairy patch which helps to distinguish I. virginica from I. versicolor. The standards are erect and smaller, usually narrowly obovate or spathulate in shape… I. virginica grows in marshes, damp pinewoods, ditches and wet grassy places in Florida and eastern Texas northwards to south-eastern Virginia. It flowers from May to July…. Although very similar in appearance to the latter [I. versicolor] it may be recognized by the flower colour which is usually in the bluer end of the spectrum (reddish-purple in I. versicolor) and by the yellow hairy patch on the falls. [p.105]

Note the sentence in bold above: some botanists consider the two species inseparable. Lumpers and splitters… Can I just call it an iris and be done?

But that’s not how I am. My permit is valid until June 30 and allows me to collect two more capsules, so I will be checking the condition of these plants a few more times, and when the capsules appear ripe, or on June 30, whichever comes first, I’ll be going through all this again. The resulting post will be shorter, though.