Now that the flush of forest spring wildflowers has passed, it’s easy to overlook most of the late bloomers. Yet our June woods produce some lovely native wildflowers, beginning with the pink lady’s-slipper.
Although it starts to bloom in mid-May, it holds its single crimson-pink slipper for three weeks. The pink lady’s-slipper orchid (Cypripedium acaule) is also called moccasin flower, squirrel-shoes, camel’s foot, hare’s lip, and whippoorwill-shoes because of its unique, pouch-shaped flower. Supposedly, whippoorwill-shoes comes from an old Indian legend that says when whippoorwills go courting at night, they wear lady’s-slippers as moccasins. In Pennsylvania, lady’s-slippers once were called “ducks” because when children partially filled the lip of the flower with sand and floated it on water, it looked like a duck to folks.
Usually, I count between 50 and 60 blooming pink lady’s-slippers along our wooded trails, but I find many more sets of two large, parallel-veined leaves without a flower. For years, I was puzzled over this until I read about Dr. Frank Gill’s 14-year study of 3,300 pink lady’s-slipper plants in a Virginia forest. Over the years, only 1,000 flowered and of those, a mere 23 had been pollinated. Even though it looks and smells like a nectar-producing flower, not only does it not produce nectar, but it traps a bee inside its pouch. The bee has to force its way back out, bearing a blob of pollen on its head. Only a dimwitted bee would visit a second lady’s-slipper to complete the pollination process or, as Dr. Gill concludes, “What I think is that a minority of bees don’t learn or that their levels of desperation are sufficiently high to make a second visit.”
Another wildflower that puts out more large, parallel-veined, oblong-shaped leaves than flowers is white clintonia (Clintonia umbellulata). Its single stalk holds an umbel of fragrant, white flowers, often dotted with purple or green. Every year I find 12 or more plants clustered at the base of an oak tree above our hollow road, but only one or two flower. Another spot beside our stream produces five plants and sometimes as many as three of those plants flower. In the deepest part of the hollow above the stream, single plants often flourish and flower. A member of the lily family, it is also called speckled wood lily and white bead lily, the latter name because its cluster of black berries looks like beads. This elegant plant lights up the dark forest and is one of my favorite wildflowers.
Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), like white clintonia, is spreading every year along our hollow road and beside our stream. It too sends out more of its leaves than its flowers because it takes three or more years to produce a flower. Each leaf has three leaflets, hence its species’ name triphyllum, and looks much like a trillium leaf. It is famous for its sex change performances, called “sequential hermaphroditism” by botanists, meaning the plant can be male, female, or both, depending on its environment the previous year. Those with two large sets of leaves are female and should probably be called jill-in-the-pulpit. The smaller plants are males. But jack-in-the-pulpit depends more on asexual reproduction by underground corm, a bulb-like stem that forms buds which produce new plants.
Jack-in-the-pulpit has even more nicknames than pink lady’s-slipper, to whit, brown dragon, Indian jack, wood pulpit, little pulpit, starchwort, cuckoo flower, devil’s ear, dragonroot, memory root, Indian turnip, pepper turnip, marsh pepper, and Indian almond. The plant is poisonous because it contains calcium oxalate crystals, but the corm, if properly dried and cooked, can be used as a root vegetable, thus the turnip names. It was also an Indian medicinal for treating sore eyes, rheumatism, bronchitis, and snakebite.
Its most intriguing nicknames, though, refer to its amazing shape — the pulpit or hood-like spathe a light green, veined with a deeper tint, or stained with purple — arched over the jack or club-shaped spadix. At the base of the spadix, grow the tiny, unisexual flowers. This unique wildflower has even inspired a long poem by Clara Smith that begins, “Jack-in-the-pulpit/ Preaches today/ Under the green trees/ Just over the way.” The preacher even moralizes, rebuking the “White Indian pipes/ On the green mosses lie!/Who has been smoking/ Profanely so nigh?”
I don’t believe any of our jack-in-the-pulpits grow close to our Indian pipes. They flourish mostly higher up Laurel Ridge in numerous clumps that appear later in June. The Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora) is white with scale-like leaves, its flower looking like a drooping pipe before it is pollinated. Afterwards, it turns its pipe skyward. Because it lacks chlorophyll, it cannot get energy from the sun. Hence, it is parasitic on fungal hosts, mostly in the Russula genus, which, in turn, get their energy from trees. Also called ghost plant, corpse plant, convulsion root and fits roots, the Indian pipe has recently been reclassified in the heath family (Ericaceae) from the family Momotropaceae.
In early June, I can usually find a couple clumps of squawroot (Conopolis americana) growing along our Pit Mound Trail. Before a previous owner logged that portion of our property on Sapsucker Ridge, I found dozens of these intriguing flowers thriving among the decaying leaves of 100-year-old red oak trees. A member of the broomrape family, squawroot is parasitic on the roots of oak trees, its suckers forming large, round knobs on the host tree’s roots. The plant looks like an elongate pine cone covered with overlapping brown scales, its hooded, two-lipped, yellowish flowers set between the scales. Growing singly or in groups of several from a thickened base, one of its alternate names—bear corn—aptly describes its appearance, whereas squawroot refers to its use by Indians in treating women’s health problems..
Another plant used to treat women’s health, the well-known medicinal black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa), flourishes beside our hollow road and inside our deer exclosure. One of its alternate names is squawroot. Others are black snakeroot, bugbane, bugwort, rattleroot, rattleweed, and, my personal favorite, fairy candles. How else to describe its upright spires of white, feathery, ill-scented flowers growing above a wreath of sharply-toothed leaflets? Instead of driving bugs away, as its generic Latin name indicates as well as its nickname bugbane, its carrion smell attracts pollinating insects. Its plant is also the sole food for the caterpillars of the Appalachian azure butterfly (Celastrina neglecta-major). This butterfly lives in the central and southern Appalachians from southern Pennsylvania to northern Georgia and thrives in rich, deciduous woods, especially near streams, exactly the habitat we have. I don’t think that I’ve seen this species yet, but we may not be far enough south, or perhaps I have misidentified some of our spring azures. Rattleroot and rattleweed refer to the seeds of black cohosh that rattle inside their pods or perhaps, along with snakeroot, to its use against snakebite by Indians.
The rest of our June native forest wildflowers are less showy. Both sweet-cicely (Osmorhiza claytonia), also called Clayton’s sweet root, and aniseroot (O. longistylis) grow beside our hollow road. Members of the parsley family, both have fern-like leaves, small umbels of white flowers, and club-shaped, blackish fruit that cling to clothes, but sweet-cicely has hairy stems and short styles whereas aniseroot has longer styles than the petals and smoother stems. In addition, all parts of aniseroot are anise-scented.
A few Philadelphia fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus) plants also grow beside our hollow road. A member of the daisy family, its small, pink-rayed, yellow-centered flowers have from 50 to 100 petals, and its leaves clasp its soft, hairy stem. Another name for this attractive plant is the Philadelphia daisy.
Hooked crowfoot (Ranunculus recurvatus), also called hooked buttercup or blisterwort, is a buttercup with tiny, pale yellow flowers that grows along our stream and is pollinated by small bees. The “hooked” refers to its spiny-looking fruit. Wood ducks, ruffed grouse, wild turkeys, and eastern chipmunks relish its seeds.
The single, greenish or white, five-petaled flower of thimbleweed or tall anemone (Anemone virginiana) grows atop a two-to-three-foot high, hairy stem above a set of whorled, three-part, toothed leaves. Its name comes from its thimble-shaped fruit. It too grows along our hollow road, and, like hooked crowfoot, is a member of the buttercup family.
Indian cucumber-root (Medeola virginiana) crowds our road bank and flourishes beside our stream. Its lance-shaped leaves grow in two whorls, and beneath the upper whorl dangle two greenish-yellow flowers with long and spreading, spider like styles. A member of the lily family, its upper leaves are stained with crimson in the fall, a striking contrast to its dark purple berries above those leaves. Its generic name is after the sorceress Medea, for its supposed medicinal values, but Indians used its rootstock, shaped like a cucumber, as food. In fact, Indians called it “his cucumber” from which it got its name. Euell Gibbons, in his classic Stalking the Healthful Herbs, describes them as “snow-white, crisp, tender, and delicious, with a distinct flavor of cucumber” and even made excellent dill pickles with them, although usually he merely substituted them for commercial cucumbers in his tossed salad.
Whorled loosestrife (Lysimachia quadrifolia) is especially abundant inside our three-acre deer exclosure. From axils of whorled leaves, grow flower stems, each of which support a five-petaled, golden-yellow flower marked with red. Both its species’ name and an alternate name—four-leaved loosestrife—refer to the number of leaves in every whorl, although sometimes it has five leaves. A member of the primrose family, it grows in dry, open woods.
Every June I discover at least one new native wildflower. Last June I found a yellow-flowered plant nestled among huckleberry shrubs along Black Gum Trail—a legume with pea-like flowers and alternate, three-leaf, clover-shaped leaves. On it, mating craneflies fluttered their long, graceful wings. I identified it as wild indigo (Baptisia tinctoria)—an herbal “commonly known among farmers as horseflyweed, because it is often used by them to keep flies from annoying horses,” according to Joseph Harned in his charming Wildflowers of the Alleghanies. He continues, “In the mountains this plant grows in great abundance. Dried specimens invariably turn black” which I proved by drying a plant. Furthermore, Harned claims, “It contains a bitter glucoside, is used as an infusion in typhus, locally for ulcers, and when given internally acts as a cathartic and emetic.”
Authorities that are more recent add that wild indigo is a dye plant used as a poor substitute for true indigo, hence its alternate name “yellow false indigo.” Like black cohosh, its seeds rattle around in pods when ripe. Some lepidopterans such as Io moths, frosted elfin butterflies, and wild indigo duskywing butterflies eat its leaves. Apparently, the wild indigo duskywing was comparatively rare until it also adapted to eating crownvetch and is now common.
Finally, the little pairs of fragrant, white, trumpet-shaped flowers of partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) bloom at the bases of its evergreen, shiny, white-veined twin leaves. This trailing plant blankets sections of our road bank and provides scarlet, edible berries for ruffed grouse, hence, its name, since partridge is a New England name for grouse as we discovered when we lived in Maine many years ago. In addition, wild turkeys, foxes, mice, bobwhite quail, and songbirds eat them. Also called checkerberry and twinberry, it is a member of the madder family, and its generic name honors Dr. John Mitchell, an able, amateur botanist from Virginia during colonial days.
With all these treasures and more to discover, I spend many June hours afield in search of both old plant friends and new.
All photos taken in Plummer’s Hollow by Dave Bonta except where indicated.