The Spring Ephemerals, part 5

The season goes faster than I can publish blog posts. These three species in the poppy family (Papaveraceae) are likely done blooming in the southeastern part of the Maryland Piedmont, but might still be blooming in the more northern and western parts of the state.

Dutchman’s breeches and squirrel corn are both in the genus Dicentra. They have almost identical foliage, but the flowers are a little different: the former look like pantaloons, while the latter are more heart-shaped.

The morning of March 19 this year was overcast; nonetheless I headed to the trail early, to avoid all the people who weren’t doing social distancing. I found what I was looking for: bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis; Papaveraceae), but the blossoms weren’t yet open. When the sun started breaking through (just after lunch) I went back and spent the next hour shooting as they opened.

What’s Up? White Flowers

White flowers recently seen in the greater Carderock area.

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica; Boraginaceae) are of course normally blue, but every once in awhile you’ll see a stand of white ones. Look for them in floodplains and adjacent moist slopes.



Look for twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla; Berberidaceae) on rocky slopes along Billy Goat B; it will likely be done blooming by tomorrow.



Moss phlox (Phlox subulata; Polemoniaceae) should be blooming for at least another month. As you can see from the photo, it doesn’t need much soil. Look for in on large rock formations along the Potomac River.



Lyre-leaved rockcress (Arabidopsis lyrata; Brassicaceae) is another rock-loving species. They’re so wispy they can be hard to see, but should be blooming for at least another month.



Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis; Papaveraceae) is almost done blooming. You can find it in rich woodlands, usually in colonies.




Early saxifrage (Micranthes virginiensis; Saxifragaceae) grows in thin soils in rocky woodlands. It’s one of the earliest bloomers but lasts for a fairly long time.



Rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides; Ranunculaceae) is just starting to bloom. It’s common in the Maryland piedmont but for some reason there isn’t much of it in the Potomac gorge. Look for it in the very open wooded areas near the Marsden Tract. It should bloom for another month.

Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) and the closely-related squirrel corn (D. canadensis; Papaveraceae) are both blooming in moist woodlands. In past years I’ve observed that the latter starts blooming a week or so after the former, so if you want to see both, go hunting soon. Neither lasts for long.

Quick Carderock Update

I had a quick look around the Carderock area on Friday (March 29), and saw the following plants blooming or budding. Also had fun taking closeup shots.

Arabidopsis lyrata (lyre-leaved rockcress): a few flowers  –>


Boechera laevigata (smooth rockcress): buds
Cardamine angustifolia (slender toothwort): buds

<–Cardamine concatenata (cut-leaf toothwort): flowers

Claytonia virginica (spring beauty): lots of flowers
Dicentra cucullaria (Dutchman’s breeches): a lot of buds, a few flowers



Dirca palustris (leatherwood): full bloom –>




<–Erythronium americanum (trout lily): gobs of leaves; 5 flowers

Lindera benzoin (spicebush): flowers




Mertensia virginica (Virginia bluebells): lots of buds, just a few open flowers    –>




<–Micranthes virginiensis (early saxifrage): full bloom

The next few weeks should be spectacular.

Compressed (part 2)

Here are some of the showier spring ephemerals to watch for in the Potomac Gorge this week.

In the floodplain close to the river, Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica; left) are approaching peak bloom. Mixed in with them in a few places are Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria; below right), which you might also find on moist, rocky outcroppings.

Trout lilies (Erythronium americanum; above left) like moist soils, too. Generally I see them in the transition areas between floodplain and slopes.

Further upslope are cut-leaf toothworts (Cardamine concatenata; left).


On drier slopes watch for scattered patches of bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis; below).



Look for twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla; below) in moist, rocky areas. They like limestone soils, so aren’t as widespread as these other species, but where they do grow they they tend to grow en masse.

Spring beauties (Claytonia virginica; below) are just about everywhere.





More tomorrow.

But First, a Quick Update

I went scouting on the Billy Goat C Trail Monday. Harbinger -of-spring is still blooming. More spring beauties are blooming.

Just a few Dutchman’s breeches are open.





As are cut-leaf toothwort.





And just a few golden ragwort.





Virginia bluebells are budding up nicely. A few more days of warm weather and the ephemerals show will be underway.


The earliest ephemerals are out and blooming a few hundred miles away, in South Carolina, but it’ll be a few more weeks before they start blooming here in the mid-Atlantic. Here’s a sneak preview of what’s to come, presented more or less in the order in which they bloom. All of these should be blooming by the end of March at the latest.

Erigenia bulbosa (harbinger-of-spring, pepper and salt; Apiaceae)

One of the first up, sometimes as early as late February. Look for it in moist woods but you have to be eagle-eyed to spot it (note the dime sitting there for scale). Just as I was finishing this post, a friend reported seeing harbinger blooming here in the Maryland Piedmont today!

Anemone americana (round-lobe hepatica; Ranunculaceae)

A hibernal plant; the leaves usually wither away by the time the flowers bloom, or soon after. If you see the leaves now, note the location and check back in a few weeks for the flowers.



Lindera benzoin (spicebush; Lauraceae)

Don’t forget to look up once in awhile! This very common understory shrub is one of the first plants to bloom in our area.


Arabidopsis lyrata (lyre-leaved rockcress; Brassicaceae)

This plant has a long bloom period, often starting early in the season. Look for it growing right on large rocks, as the common name suggests. The sight of a mass of these delicate blossoms dancing in even the slightest breeze fills me with joy.

Cardamine concatenata (cut-leaf toothwort; Brassicaceae)

Such a dainty thing.




Corydalis flavula (short-spurred corydalis and many other common names; Papaveraceae)

Another petite flower, easy to miss. You have to get very close to see all the ornate details.


Micranthes virginiensis (early saxifrage; Saxifragaceae)

This fine specimen is one of the largest I’ve seen. I usually find them in rocky places.


Dicentra canadensis (squirrel corn; Papaveraceae)

The delicate, lacy, ferny foliage is almost identical to that of Dutchman’s breeches; you have to see the plants flowering to tell them apart with confidence.


Dicentra cucullaria (Dutchman’s breeches; Papaveraceae)

From my limited observation, this species is usually waning when squirrel corn is just getting started. There’s a hillside on the Cabin John Trail that’s covered in these plants.

Next time, more teasers.


After all the research into the borage and waterleaf families I was looking forward to writing a short little something about this odd yet charming spring ephemeral. Then I went to verify a few facts and saw references to both the fumitory family (Fumariaceae) and the poppy family (Papaveraceae).

Oh, no. Not again.

Short version: pretty much the same thing happened with these two families as with the other two. The interesting thing, to me, is that fumitory-type flowers look absolutely nothing like poppy-type flowers, while the borage and waterleaf flowers (eg Phacelia and Cryptantha species) look an awful lot alike. But then, classification is based on phylogeny, not morphology.

At any rate, flowers previously placed in the fumitory family do have similar features, namely two very small sepals and four petals in two pairs, the outer pair being somewhat squashed and spread-out looking. The symmetry is either bilateral (one plane of symmetry) or disymmetric, meaning there are two planes of symmetry, perpendicular to each other.

Other flowers in the Papaveraceae look like, well, poppies, with radial symmetry.

Back to squirrel corn. In Maryland it’s found in a few parts of the Piedmont and all the physiographic provinces to the west. It’s close relative Dutchman’s breeches is more widespread, in most of the state except parts of the Coastal Plain. A third species, D. eximina, is found in Prince George’s, Montgomery, Allegany, and Garret counties, and is listed S2/threatened. I haven’t seen it yet, but I really want to, because it, too, has funny common names: turkey corn and wild bleeding heart.

Other fumitory-type flowers found in Maryland include one species of Adlumia, three types of corydalis, and one (alien) species of Fumaria. The popular garden ornamental bleeding hearts (formerly Dicentra spectabilis, currently Lamprocapnos spectabilis) is native to Asia.

Dutchman’s breeches with green foliage

A large patch of the forest floor near the white trout lilies is carpeted in the finely dissected foliage of squirrel corn and Dutchman’s breeches. I’ve noticed that the latter species has a consistent medium green color, while the former is somewhat bluish (glaucous). But less than a mile away, near Plummer’s Island, there’s a stand of the two Dicentra species growing together where the foliage is indistinguishable. I’ve heard that other native plant enthusiasts have observed the same thing, and that some have observed the opposite. Not sure what to make of that, except that it isn’t a reliable way to distinguish the two species. You have to see the flowers. (Or the corms, but I don’t advocate digging up plants growing in public lands.)

squirrel corn with glaucous foliage

Dutchman’s breeches seems to bloom about a week or so before squirrel corn, at least in the Potomac Gorge. It’s close to done now, but squirrel corn should still be blooming.

A note about common names

Timothy Coffey in his well-researched The History and Folklore of North American Wildflowers (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994) gives common names for about 700 species of plants. Many of these names are probably historical and no longer used, but if you’re interested in such things it’s a fun resource. The following list is from the book.

Dicentra canadensis: colicweed, ghost-corn, Indian-potatoes, ladies-and-gentlemen, lyre-flower, stagger-weed, turkey-corn, turkey-pea, white-hearts, wild-hyacinth

Dicentra cucullaria: bachelor’s-breeches, boys-and-girls, breeches-flower, butterfly-banners, colicweed, dicentre à capuchon, eardrops, flyflower, girls-and-boys, Indian boys-and-girls, kitten-breeches, leather-breeches, little-blue-stagger, little-boy’s-breeches, monkshood, pearl-harlequin, soldier’s-cap, stagger-weed, turkey, white-eardrop, white-hearts.

I know one woman who calls D. cucullaria Dutchman’s-britches.