It’s March 20, the vernal equinox, and I’m sitting by the woodstove, watching the snow fall. Four to eight inches are predicted by tomorrow night, possibly more, and I just got back from a trip to the Southwest and haven’t been out botanizing at home in about two weeks. Friends are posting pictures of bloodroot and Dutchman’s breeches that are blooming nearby, but it’ll be a few days before I can go out hunting.
Instead I’m looking at my pictures of Erigenia bulbosa, which, other than skunk cabbage, is the earliest blooming forb in the Maryland piedmont. This diminutive perennial plant grows only about 10 centimeters tall, barely poking above the leaves on the forest flower at bloom time. It’s a true ephemeral: after blooming, the finely divided compound leaves open a little further and the plant will grow a little taller, but it dies back before spring is over.
The inflorescence is a compound umbel (an umbel of umbels). The individual flowers are minute, comprising five white petals and five stamens, whose anthers start red but quickly turn black.
I found these blooming on February 28 this year, which is about as early as I’ve seen it. The blooming period lasts about a month. Look for it in rich, moist woodlands, especially near rivers.
Erigenia means “born early”; bulbosa is for the (edible) corm from which the plant emerges. Around here it’s called harbinger-of-spring, or sometimes pepper-and-salt (for the anthers and petals); older, less common names include turkey-pea, turkey-foot, and ground-nut1. The genus is monotypic (meaning, it only has one species), and this might be the smallest plant in its family (Apiaceae).
It’s uncommon in Maryland (listed S3). The Maryland Biodiversity Project has records for it in the counties of Harford, Montgomery, and Washington. There are a few other occurrences of it east of the Appalachians (from northern North Carolina to southern New York), but mostly it’s a plant of the Midwest, where it ranges from central Alabama to central Michigan, and westward into eastern Kansas. In Wisconsin and New York it’s listed as endangered; in Pennsylvania, it’s threatened.
1The History and Folklore of North American Wildflowers, Timothy Coffey