On the Last Day of Winter

Today is the first day of meteorological spring* (astronomical spring is still three weeks away), but as of yesterday, the 28th of February, the wildflower show had already begun along the Potomac. Barely.

Claytonia virginica (spring beauty; Montiaceae)

Just a few dozen of these were up in sheltered locations.

This one specimen of Packera aurea (golden ragwort; Asteraceae) already had well-developed buds. Often this species will retain leaves through the winter, and many low-lying leaves were visible, but I saw none of the tall growth yet. In the same location last year just a few flowers were open on March 23, with peak bloom about April 13; in 2015, I saw the first ones March 24, with peak bloom in mid-April.

Erigenia bulbosa (harbinger-of-spring; Apiaceae)

More about this in an upcoming post. Can you see it sheltering there under the maple leaf? That’s one plant with about 14 flowers!

A few alien species are starting to bloom: Veronica hederifolia (ivy-leaved speedwell) and Cardamine hirsuta (hairy bittercress).

And, I saw one clump of Mertensia virginica (Virginia bluebells) foliage emerging, but that makes a boring photo.

*more on meteorological seasons from NOAA

The Alien Speedwells

There are a lot of low-growing, blue-flowering aliens out there now, like the periwinkle I wrote about two days ago, or the mint family weeds I’ll be writing about next. Among these are the speedwells (genus Veronica, in the Plantaginaceae).

Of the 30 or so species of Veronica that can be found in North America, about two-thirds are alien. There may be as many as 17 species in Maryland; of these one may be native (sources vary), another is a fairly common native, and a third is a listed S1/Endangered native.

So if you find a speedwell in the field, it’s likely an alien. They can be pesky to distinguish, since in many cases close examination of the tiny leaves is necessary.

Trying to differentiate between bird’s eye speedwell (V. persica, pictured above) and ivy-leaved speedwell (V. hederifolia, sometimes spelled V. hederaefolia) was making me crazy, so I finally collected a few samples. In this picture, ivy-leaved speedwell is on the left, and bird’s-eye speedwell is on the right. The main differences are in the leaves. The former has leaves with 3-5 palmately compound lobes, hairy margins and hairy tops. The latter has much smoother leaves that are deeply indented (crenate or dentate).


This is V. hederifolia. Click on the picture for a closer look at just how hairy the leaves are.



This pretty awful picture from a few years ago shows just enough detail to identify the plant as corn speedwell, V. arvensis. The giveaway here is that the uppermost leaves are elongated, almost triangular in outline, with entire margins. The lower leaves of this species are rounder and toothed. Note its size compared to the blade of grass cutting across the upper left corner.

Here’s another old picture. Without details about the rest of the plant, I can’t say for certain, but it sure does look like the inflorescence of common speedwell, V. officinalis. As an aside, take a look at the flower. If you didn’t look closely and tried to key it out using Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide*, you could easily fall into the trap of calling it radially symmetrical, with four petals. But the bottommost petal isn’t the same shape as the others, which means it is bilaterally symmetrical; in Newcomb’s key it falls under “irregular”.

Last one. Again, I’m not certain, but the longish, smooth-margined, sessile leaves in pairs (more visible in other but worse pictures that I have) lead me to ID this as water speedwell, V. anagallis-aquatica. Another clue is habitat: I found it in a very wet, mucky area along the Potomac. It could also be American brooklime, V. americana, but in that species the leaves have more pronounced teeth along the margins, and the leaves have very short petioles.

I’m not an expert and had some trouble learning this genus, so if you disagree with any of my IDs please leave a comment!

*Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide is one of the best ID books for eastern North America flowers; the first question in the key is about symmetry.

Beautiful Little Things

These three plants have nothing in common other than I found them to be delightful.


Veronica fruticans
rock speedwell
Icelandic: steindepla

Despite being common and distributed through much of Iceland, I only saw these two flowers, on a mountainside south of Akureyri. The species is also found in Greenland and Fennoscandia. The flower is small (about half an inch across), but the blue is so intense that it really stands out.



Thymus praecox ssp. arcticus
creeping thyme
Icelandic: blóðberg

This ground-hugging plant was almost everywhere, as delightful to smell as it is to see. It’s another Fennoscandia native, but its introduced ranged includes Greenland, much of Canada, various parts of the US as far south as Mississippi, and even Venezuela.

belly flower!




Pinguicula vulgaris
common butterwort
Icelandic: lyfjagras

Another very common plant, growing almost everywhere in Iceland, and indeed almost everywhere in the higher latitudes of the northern hemisphere. In the US it’s found in the upper Great Lakes areas and New England. Butterworts are insectivorous: sticky hairs on the leaves trap insects, which are then digested by enzymes the leaves excrete. There’s more information at Luonto Portti (Nature Gate) website, a resource I’ve been using quite a bit, since so many Icelandic plants are also found in Finland. None of the 80 or so Pinguicula species are found in Maryland, but there are a dozen of their close relatives, Utriculariaaka bladderworts, here.