Yellow Star Grass


aka common goldstar
Hypoxis hirsuta
(formerly Liliaceae)

This is a common plant, found through most of Maryland and much of the eastern US (but not Florida), and into the Midwest and Great Plains, with scattered occurrences further west. And yet I’ve never seen it until this spring, when I found this single plant blooming on Sugarloaf Mountain. I really do need to get out to new places more often.

There’s not much to say about it. The plant stands no taller than twelve inches, looking rather like a tuft of grass, but it isn’t. A flowering stem can hold several flowers.

Yellow star grass is threatened in New Hampshire and possibly extirpated in Maine.


One Wet Place, Three Big Ferns


cinnamon fern
Osmundastrum cinnanomeum

A small stream called Bear Branch, a tributary of Bennett Creek (which is a tributary of the Monocacy River) flows through the Sugarloaf Mountain Natural Area. It’s a nice place to go botanizing, despite some pretty heavy deer browse. The understory is full of mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia). I’m slightly embarrassed to say that I’m not sure of the canopy; chestnut oak mostly, and some beech, but I have a bad habit of looking down when I should be looking all around.

Anyway, the more or less flat area where the two forks of Bear Branch meet, by Mt. Ephraim Road, is almost swampy. Last month I noted many croziers coming up there, but I don’t know ferns well enough to identify them by their fiddleheads. By last week most were fully opened into tall fronds, and some had fertile fronds as well. Fertile fronds make identification much easier.

All three of these species are in the Osmundaceae. All three have similar ranges, mostly east of the Mississippi River as far south as Georgia and north well into Canada (cinnamon fern ranges further into the southwest). All three are tall, clump-forming ferns of wet places, and all three have distinctive fertile fronds.

(Apologies for all the jargon in this post. Have a look here and here for some definitions.)


a young royal fern; fronds can grow to 3 feet in length

royal fern
Osmunda regalis var. spectabilis 

Royal fern has an unusual look. The pinules of the bi-pinnate fronds are simply-shaped and widely spaced along the costa, giving the frond an open, airy appearance.


pinules (leaflets) along the costa (midrib)



portion of a blade showing bi-pinnate form







closer look at clumps of sporangia on fertile frond





Royal fern is commercially exploited in Florida, threatened in Iowa, and exploitably vulnerable in New York.











cinnamon fern
Osmundastrum cinnamomeum
(formerly Osmunda cinnamomeum)

When fertile fronds are present, cinnamon fern can’t be mistaken for anything else. You can see how it gets its common name (and specific epithet) from the fertile fronds, borne separately from the sterile fronds; when mature, the sporangia turn brown, giving the look of a cinnamon stick.


the leafy, sterile fronds are pinnate-pinnatifid, meaning the blade is once cut into pinnae, and each pinna is lobed but not cut all the way to the costa (midrib)

Cinnamon fern is commercially exploited in Florida, endangered in Iowa, and exploitably vulnerable in New York. It’s commonly available in the nursery trade, and is a great landscaping plant for a large, shady, wet part of the yard.






interrupted fern
Osmunda claytoniana

As with cinnamon fern, the fertile fronds of interrupted fern make identification easy, and you can see how it gets its name. The sporangia (green when young, tan or brown when mature) cluster on the rachis between the pinnae.  This fern likes wet places, but not as wet as the previous two. Each species I found growing in distinct stands in the same general area, but well apart from each other. The interrupted fern was significantly further uphill, on a bit of a slope in a slightly rockier area.


clusters of mature sporangia “interrupting” the pinnae along the rachis

Interrupted fern has pinnate-pinnatifid blades. It’s threatened in Arkansas and exploitably vulnerable in New York.


a single pinna, showing pinnatifid form (pinnules not cut all the way to the costa)


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.

20160505-_DSC0130 copy

“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

Sugarloaf, May 5


pinxter azalea in all its glory



Went back to Sugarloaf Mountain on May 5 and spent all morning hunting for lady slipper orchids. I didn’t find any, but I did find some other things that I haven’t seen before (more about those in the next few days). The list of plants in bloom:

  • sweet cicely
  • dwarf cinquefoil
  • Indian cucumber root
  • flowering dogwood
  • common fleabane
  • mountain laurel (just two buds open)
  • pinxter azalea
  • Rubus species (unknown which, probably a dewberry or blackberry)
  • rue anemone
  • Gray’s sedge
  • wild sarsaparilla
  • false Solomon’s seal (buds not quite open)
  • marsh blue violet
  • ovate-leaved violet
  • spotted wintergreen (buds)

Also I saw great stands of royal fern and cinnamon fern, and some nice specimens of scrub pine (Pinus virginiana) and white pine (Pinus strobus).

Most trees seem to be fully leafed out but the leaves are still small and pale; on that gloomy, misty morning the pinxters stood out like beacons in the forest. Mountain laurel buds are swollen, and by the time this post is published they should be opening. Since mountain laurel is one of the dominant understory plants at Sugarloaf, it will be a fabulous show.


mountain laurel about to pop

Table Mountain Pine


aka hickory pine, prickly pine,
mountain pine, squirrel pine
Pinus pungens

The table mountain pine is endemic to the Appalachian Mountains, where it’s found mostly in the Ridge and Valley and Blue Ridge physiographic provinces. In Maryland, that includes Frederick, Washington, and Allegany Counties, though there are no records of table mountain pine in Washington County.

This specimen was found at White Rocks in the Sugarloaf Mountain Natural Area, which is actually in the Piedmont province, though at the westernmost part, right at the edge of the Blue Ridge province.

Table mountain pine grows slowly, with a rather crooked, many-branched habit, and is often flat-topped. It rarely grows taller than 60 feet, although the tallest on record was 94 feet. It prefers exposed, rocky sites (like White Rocks) where there’s little competition from other trees. The seedlings actually take root in rock crevices.

Identifying it is fairly easy, as there aren’t too many pine species in Maryland. The fact that it’s 2-needled and has spiny cones helps, along with noting the habitat. More on pine identification (and an explanation of “2-needled”) in a future post.

I was wondering about how it got the name “table mountain pine”, since sometimes it’s written with capital letters: Table mountain pine or Table Mountain pine. Was it named for a specific place? The internets gave the following answers:

“Pinus pungens is named for generic Appalachian mountain forms, not a specific mountain, and so the common name should not be capitalized as a proper noun.” (University of Georgia)

“This tree was first collected around 1794 near Tablerock Mountain in Burke County, North Carolina, hence the common name `Table Mountain pine’.” (North Carolina State University)

So who knows? Though the second source sounds authoritative.