Miterwort and Dwarf Ginseng

The problem with writing blog posts at this time of year is that there’s so much to write about. By the time I photograph a flower and research it and publish the piece, it may very well be done for the year.

That’s probably the case with these two species, which I group together because they bloom at about the same time, and because the only place I know where to find them is about a five-minute walk from my house.

Two-leaf miterwort, also called bishop’s cap, (Mitella diphylla, Saxifragaceae) is a perennial clump-forming forb that stands about two feet tall. It’s a simple plant, with a basal rosette and one pair of leaves on the flowering stem (hence the specific epithet). The individual flowers on the raceme look like tiny snowflakes. The whole plant is so wispy that it’s easily passed by.

There are five species of Mitella native to North America, but this is the only one found in the mid-Atlantic. It’s also found in the Appalachian South, the Midwest, and New England. In Maryland it grows from the western coastal plain west to the Appalachian plateau.

A much shorter plant, also easily overlooked, Panax trifolius (Araliaceae) is somewhat misleadingly named: the leaves often have five leaflets, though two of them are quite small. Dwarf ginseng is not the ginseng of commerce: that’s Panax quinquefolius, which also has five leaflets, but the leaflets have short stalks (petiolules), which is one way to tell the plants apart.

Dwarf ginseng grows in similar habitats to miterwort, with a similar but more northern range in North America. Fun fact: according to the Illinois Wildflowers site, not only is dwarf ginseng polygamo-dioecious (with plants bearing either staminate or perfect flowers) but “individual plants are capable of changing their gender from year-to-year”.*

Plants are so cool.

*Illinois Wildflowers Panax trifolius page

Wild Sarsaparilla



Aralia nudicaulis

Last week I went back to Sugarloaf Mountain with one goal: find lady slipper orchids. After four cool, humid hours, the rain started and I had to leave. Never saw any orchids, but I did find some great stands of ferns, a new-to-me violet which I think I’ve id’d correctly, and another new-to-me plant: wild sarsaparilla.

Wild sarsaparilla is a woodland plant found in almost all of Canada, across the northern US, and south along the Appalachian Mountains into South Carolina.


The form of the plant is interesting: there’s a single leaf-bearing stem and a single flowering stem. The flowering stem is shorter, and has three spherical clusters of flowers. The leaf stem looks at first like it has three compound leaves, and many websites describe it this way. The excellent Illinois Wildflowers site describes it as a single leaf, in three discreet segments, each segment comprising three to five leaflets.

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“Sarsaparilla” is also the name of a beverage that tastes a lot like root beer. Traditionally it’s flavored with root extracts from any of several different species of Smilax*, all of which go by the common name “sarsaparilla”, and all of which are tropical. Since Aralia nudicalis roots yield a similar flavor, they’ve been used as a substitute for sarsaparilla, as flavoring agents and for medicinal purposes.

*an aside for taxonomy nerds: the two genera aren’t in the same family or even order, but they are in the same class, Magnoliopsida

Flower of the Day: Dwarf Ginseng


Panax trifolius; Araliaceae

Dwarf ginseng is another of the spring ephemerals that grows in moist deciduous woodlands.  Don’t confuse it with American ginseng (P. quinquefolius).  The two are quite similar in appearance, the main difference being the length of the petiolules (the stalks of the leaflets), which are much longer in the latter species.  In dwarf ginseng, the petiolules are very short or altogether absent.  The other distinguishing feature is the berry color (yellow for dwarf, red for American).  At first glance you might think the plant pictured above has five leaves, but it doesn’t; there are three leaves in a whorl on the stem, each with five leaflets.


As far as I know this plant has no commercial value, and so is not subject to poaching, which is threatening populations of American ginseng (which is listed as threatened or vulnerable in ten states).  Still, an over-eager novice poacher could do some damage.


So could an over-eager photographer.  It was very difficult to get close to these subjects without trampling anything.  All of these pictures are Lightroom zoom-ins.