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.
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.
Odd weather we’ve had this winter. Unusually cold on average, but with unusually warm days. Plants are emerging and budding up and some are blooming already, as I reported in the last post. Anyway, here’s more of what we can look forward to in the next month or so.
I usually see these plants in large stands, and all the plants in a stand seem to flower at the same time, but the flowers only last a few days. I’m going to start watching for them in mid-March this year.
This is the same species I posted a picture of on Wednesday, with the purple buds. Such a perky thing. The first species in the Asteraceae to bloom ’round here.
Since bloodroot grows from rhizomes, when there’s more than one plant they’re often in a line.
Erythronium americanum (trout lily; Liliaceae)
Erythronium albidum (white trout lily; Liliaceae)
Trillium sessile (toadshade; Liliaceae)
Honestly my love for this plant comes from that common name. This is peak bloom; the flower petals don’t spread open. Yellow flowering forms can be found near Carderock.
Stellaria pubera (star chickweed; Caryophyllaceae)
It’s all about those stamens. And fun fact: each flower has five petals. The petals are so deeply cleft that a single petal appears to be two petals.
Thalictrum thalictroides (rue anemone; Ranunculaceae)
In botanical Latin the suffix “-oides” means “resembling”. So this species is “Thalictrum that looks like Thalictrum”. Thalictrum is “from thaliktron, a name used to describe a plant with divided leaves”.*
These will be carpeting floodplains and other very moist-soil areas in less than a month.
Phlox divaricata (wild blue phlox; Polemoniaceae)
Wild blue phlox starts blooming at about the same time as Virginia bluebells, but they last longer. It’s a glorious sight when these two and golden ragwort fill the woods.
*California Plant Names: Latin and Greek Meanings and Derivations
A Dictionary of Botanical and Biographical Etymology
Compiled by Michael L. Charters
Yesterday’s post had a quote about twinleaf being distinct from Sanguinaria and Podophyllum. All three have their similarities, especially in the flower, which in each case is large and white with numerous petals. Twinleaf is in the genus Jeffersonia, which has only two species, while both Sanguinaria and Podophyllum are (currently) monotypic genera. The latter is represented by P. peltatum, mayapple or maypop, which like twinleaf is placed in the barberry family (Berberidaceae). The former is represented by S. canadensis, bloodroot, which is in the poppy family (Papaveraceae) and blooming now in the Maryland piedmont. I’ll write about maypop once they’re blooming and I can get some pictures.
Bloodroot is a perennial plant that forms colonies from the rhizome, so more likely than not if you find one, you’ll find others nearby. The roots contain a reddish-orange sap, hence the name Sanguinaria, which means bleeding. The plant stands a little less than a foot tall, with a single multi-lobed basal leaf that emerges with the single flower stalk; while still young the leaf clasps the stem, but as the flower fades it opens fully. Although it doesn’t have the mirror-image symmetry of the twinleaf, you can see why early botanists might have considered the two closely related. (Until fairly recently, taxonomy was based largely on flower and fruit morphology.)
The flower can be large (up to three inches in diameter), with eight or more petals, two sepals, numerous stamens, and a single pistil.
Bloodroot is one of the spring ephemerals, and has a wide native range, occurring in some areas to the west of the Mississippi River but primarily east of it, from northern Florida north into Canada. It’s listed as exploitably vulnerable in New York and special concern in Rhode Island.
In 1792, when Thomas Jefferson was serving as the US Secretary of State, his botanist friend Benjamin Smith Barton decided that twinleaf must be in a genus of its own, “distinct from the Sanguinaria and the Podophyllum”*, and dubbed it Jeffersonia binata.
Twinleaf now goes by the name Jeffersonia diphylla (Berberidaceae). It isn’t exactly rare, but it isn’t common, either. It ranges from western New York south through the Appalachians to northernmost Alabama, then northwest as far as southeastern Minnesota. In all the states where it’s found, it occurs in only a handful of areas. It’s currently listed as endangered in Georgia and New Jersey, and threatened in Iowa and New York. The Biota of North America Project shows it present in Montgomery County, Maryland, and all counties to the west, but the Maryland Biodiversity project has records for it only in Montgomery, Washington, and Allegany counties.
As I wrote last week, this is a plant whose blossoms last only a few days. I saw two twinleaf flowers on Tuesday. On Thursday, a few more were blooming but were closed up tight because of the overcast. And yesterday, I saw maybe a dozen flowers, most of which were already fading and starting to set seed.
Twinleaf is a delicate-looking plant, consisting of several tall-standing basal leaves, each of which is nearly bisected into mirror image pairs. The leafless flower stem bears a single large, white flower, which has four sepals, eight petals, eight stamens, and one pistil.
The plant itself persists for another month or two past flowering before going dormant.
This is the earliest I’ve seen it blooming in the six years I’ve been tracking it.
*Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book, 1766 – 1824; Edwin Betts, editor
No plant in the piedmont that I know of has as short a bloom time as twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla). Thanks to a tip from a fellow hunter, I was able to get out to Billy Goat B today, where I saw just two of them blooming. If they follow the same pattern as in recent years, they will be in full bloom in another two days, maybe, and done by Sunday.
I’ll write about twinleaf and post more pictures later, but I wanted to get the word out before it’s too late.
Also seen blooming today on Billy Goat B and in the Carderock area: trout lily, Dutchman’s breeches, leatherwood, Virginia bluebells, cut-leaf toothwort, slender toothwort, early saxifrage, round-lobed hepatica, rue anemone, toadshade, and bloodroot.