Two-Leaf Miterwort; Ethical Considerations

On April 11 I went hunting for two-leaf miterwort in the woods near my house. I found just a few plants, perfectly in bloom. But they were up a pretty steep slope. That steep slope used to have a lot more miterwort on it, just off the trail, but for some reason it doesn’t anymore.

A lot of families were out that day; social distancing was impossible without stepping off the trail. So, it seemed best to move up the slope and set up the equipment there. On the other hand, exactly that sort of disturbance is probably why there’s less miterwort this year.

I compromised by moving just off the trail, and using my longest lens (70-200mm) with a 1.7x teleconverter. I really wanted to get right up to the plants, and use the 105mm macro lens, but I just couldn’t let myself do it.

Mitella diphylla, also known as bishop’s cap, is in the saxifrage family. A forb of moist woodlands, it can found through much of New England west to Minnesota, and south to Tennessee and North Carolina. It’s rarely found in the northernmost portions of the deep South.

These are the best pictures I could get, given the circumstances. I really wanted clear pictures of the two stem leaves and the basal leaves. Maybe next year.

actually, not bad for 340mm!—>

Do you remember the so-called Poppy Apocalypse of 2019? That was the super bloom in southern California that attracted thousands and thousands of visitors. I was one of them. I was not one of the people leaving the trail to take a selfie. At the time I probably could have written many paragraphs about observed bad behavior, and the irony of trampling over something beautiful in order to get a closer look. It’s great that so many people wanted to experience this rare miracle of nature, but they ought to show some respect.

<—there are at least 16 people in this photo, most of them off-trail

Why is this hard? Respect other people and give them at least six feet of distance during this pandemic; respect nature, don’t destroy it.

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

Flower of the Day: Twoleaf Miterwort

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aka bishop’s cap
Mitella diphylla; Saxifragaceae

Most of the time when hunting wildflowers I’m enjoying the solitude.  A smile and nod is about all I exchange with passersby, unless someone addresses me. And I can be cagey when someone asks what I’m looking for, because you never know who will end up being a collector, and I don’t want people poaching these precious plants.

But Monday on the Cabin John Trail, spying a man who was kneeling by a stand of rue anemone, consulting a guide book and making notes, I felt strangely compelled to go talk with him.  We shared pictures, made some “I found this, what did you find?” chitchat.  And then my boldness was rewarded, for he showed me where to find miterwort.  (In return I offered the location of dwarf ginseng, but he already knew about it.)

Twoleaf miterwort is in many ways an unremarkable plant, standing only a foot and a half tall, with a few basal leaves, a pair of stem leaves, and a raceme of tiny white flowers.  I’d read about it, seen pictures, but never actually encountered it.

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Isn’t it fascinating?

That flower is less than a quarter inch wide.

There are eleven species of Mitella in the US and Canada, but twoleaf miterwort is the only one found in Maryland. It prefers dappled sunlight to shade in moist to dry open woods.

Thanks, Bill!  It was nice meeting you.

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