A chorus of birds greets me this cool, foggy day — song sparrows, eastern phoebes, dark-eyed juncos, robins, and northern cardinals — all predictable on the tenth of April. And then, from the top of First Field, the imitative song of a brown thrasher unwinds. At last a sign that this late spring is underway.
At least I certainly hope so. My son, Dave, and I are leading members of our Juniata Valley Audubon Society on an early wildflower drive a few miles south in Huntingdon County, and I’m worried. Not even our trailing arbutus has bloomed yet. Will we see any wildflowers at all?
The previous spring, on this date, Dave and his wildflower aficionado friend, Lucy, had taken our planned route and seen scores of wildflowers, even the elusive and increasingly rare twinleaf. On this day the weather looks unpromising as we rendezvous with fellow members in an abandoned parking lot beside an auto parts dealer on the outskirts of Huntingdon.
Why there, I wonder. But the moment we park our car, I understand. The high, steep, wooded bank behind the line of stores is blanketed with budding bloodroot, Dutchman’s breeches, and early meadow rue. We scramble up a portion of the slope amid the rocky rubble, searching for at least one opened flower to show the increasing number of participants pulling up, parking, and rushing over to see what we’ve discovered.
We’re all eager for signs of spring, and when one person finds a blooming bloodroot, we clamber up for a look. Meanwhile, cars and trucks stream past on U.S. Route 22, vehicles filled with people who have no idea about the miracle of spring we are admiring.
Bloodroot — Sanguinaria canadensis — is named for its reddish stem that leaves orange-red juice on your fingers if you pick it. Its leaf will bleed also when cut or bruised and its thick, fleshy root contains orange-red juice. But its flower displays seven to 12 long, narrow, snow white petals that surround a yellow center of 20 stamens and one large, yellow-tipped stigma. So fragile are these flowers that a wind or rain will tear them apart. However, they can withstand more cold than many wildflowers because, like other early bloomers, bloodroot stored energy and food in its thick roots the previous year.
Bloodroot, also known as Indian paint, coon root, snakebite, sweet slumber, red root, corn root, turmeric, tetterwort and red puccoon, was once renowned as a cure-all for coughs, colds, and skin diseases. Native Americans used its red juice to treat cramps, stop vomiting, induce abortions, and repel insects. They also mixed the juice with fat to paint their faces and bodies and dye their baskets and clothing.
More recently, an extract of bloodroot, called sanguinarine, has been added to some toothpastes and mouth rinses to fight plaque and gum disease. In addition, a few doctors have been using bloodroot to treat minor ear and nose cancers.
But on this warming spring day eleven people from four counties — Perry, Huntingdon, Blair and Centre — are more interested in the beauty of this and other wildflowers we plan to track down.
Our next stop is at the base of The Thousand Steps on Jack’s Mountain, east of Huntingdon in Jack’s Narrows, still along U.S. Route 22. There we find another rocky mountainside covered with blooming Dutchman’s breeches, cutleaf toothwort and more bloodroot. A few adventurous folks climb a hundred feet above us, and soon we hear a happy shout. They have discovered some twinleaf growing amid a patch of cutleaf toothwort.
I don’t have my hiking boots on. I hadn’t thought we would be climbing up steep hillsides to find wildflowers. I should have known, though, that such places are natural refugia from white-tailed deer herbivory. But I am desperate to see twinleaf, a wildflower I have somehow missed during my 70 years. Finally, a way is found across a stream and up the back side of the hill for the less sure-footed of us to reach those twinleafs.
And there it is. Another white-petaled flower that resembles bloodroot. But it is named for its large leaves almost divided in half atop their tall stems and resembling angel wings or a butterfly in shape. Twinleaf — Jeffersonia diphylla — was named in honor of Thomas Jefferson by his botanist friend Benjamin Barton.
Its leaves are unique enough and its eight waxy-white petals encircling erect, yellow stamens around a green ovary are lovely enough, but I wish I could see its fruit — a green, pear-shaped capsule with a hinged lid that pops opens and spills out seeds when they are ripe, hence its alternate names “helmet pod” and “ground squirrel pea.”
Twinleaf is also called rheumatism root because of its purported medicinal uses. Native Americans concocted infusions to treat urinary tract problems and as a poultice for sores and inflammation. A decoction of the plant treated liver problems and diarrhea. American settlers utilized the entire plant as an emetic, general tonic, antispasmodic, and diuretic. More recently, scientists found that its roots contain berberine, an anti-tumor alkaloid. All in all, another useful and beautiful wildflower.
Dutchman’s-breeches — Dicentra cucullaria — has been one of my favorite wildflowers ever since my father showed it to me many years ago in Montgomery County near his hometown of Pottstown. As a child it wasn’t difficult to remember the name of the spray of yellow-tipped, white, pantaloon-shaped flowers nodding at the tip of a curved stem. Other folks imagined other shapes and called them soldier’s caps, white-hearts, eardrops, monk’s head, butterfly banners, kitten breeches, bachelor’s breeches, and little boy breeches.
But Victorian admirers of wildflowers were not amused by the term “breeches,” especially those who knew that the original meaning of the word was “buttocks” or “rump.” Naturalist F. Schuyler Mathews, at the end of the nineteenth century, admitted that the name sounded “A bit unrefined,” but “I like the name because of its knickerbockers flavor, and although it is suggestive of a bit of rude humor, it is not without a certain poetic significance.” On the other hand, its scientific name means “two-spurred” and “hooded.”
Those upside down blossoms, though, protect its pollen from the weather and from most non-pollinating insects. Only long-tongued native bumblebees can reach its nectar and hence the pollen of Dutchman’s breeches.
It, too, like bloodroot and twinleaf, prefer rocky, calcareous, wooded hillsides and forms sizable colonies. Also, as nineteenth New York state naturalist/writer John Burroughs pointed out, “As soon as bloodroot has begun to star the waste, stony places…we are on the lookout for Dicentra.” Perhaps, even he was embarrassed to use its common name.
The more pedantically named cutleaf toothwort — Cardamine concatenate — has a spray of nodding white or pinkish, four-petaled, cross-shaped flowers on top of a stem of three deeply-cut leaves.
Sources differ over why it is named toothwort. Some say it refers to the tooth-like appearance of its rhizome or underground stem. Others insist that it was used to cure toothaches, thus its name “toothache root.” Crinkleroot is still another description of its iconic rhizome. So too are pepperwort and pepper-root because the rhizome is edible and has a spicy, radish-like flavor that gives a zippy touch to a spring salad. Even its species’ name honors the rhizome because concatenate is Latin for “joined together,” yet another description of the root. I’ve not been able to account for other nicknames — lady’s smocks, crow’s toes, and milkmaids — but Cardamine is Greek for bittercress, which is appropriate for a member of the Mustard family.
Tired of the constant stream of traffic on U.S. Route 22, we retrace our tour and turn off on the two-lane, little-traveled River Road that winds its way along the Raystown branch of the Juniata River. We stop often to admire rock formations on the right side of the road from which sprays of maidenhair spleenwort ferns dangle. And we finally hit another jackpot of wildflowers when we pull into the Corbin’s Island Recreation Area, a half mile below Raystown Dam where the river still flows strongly, and we catch our first glimpse of migrating waterfowl swimming on the water.
It’s sandy at this flat area, and our group spreads out in search of new wildflowers. First they find the spotted, elongate leaves of trout lilies and then whole beds of them. Sure enough, on this day that has gradually warmed and sunned, their single, nodding, bell-shaped, yellow flowers have opened on innumerable stems. After seeing so many white flowers, the trout lilies seem positively exotic.
The trout lily — Erythronium americanum — is indeed a member of the Lily family and has finally been given a proper common name. The purple blotches on its leaves look like some trout species, and the flower appears just as trout season opens. But if you look at older wildflower books in search of trout lily, you will find it under dog’s tooth violet or adder’s tongue. However, it is not a violet, although its underground corms are pointed somewhat like a tooth. Mary Durant, in her book Who Named the Daisy? Who Named the Rose?, says that a European variety of trout lily has dog-toothed roots and is violet colored, hence the probably origin of dog’s tooth violet.
Adder’s tongue is a little harder to decipher, although some authorities say that the marks on the leaves look like snake markings. Others think that its twin leaves resemble a snake’s forked tongue or conversely that the leaves pop out of the soil and “Whoever sees the sharp purplish point of a young plant darting above the ground in earliest spring… at once sees the fitting application of ‘adder’s tongue,’” one expert writes. Really?
If you don’t like any of those names, fawn lily was John Burroughs’s choice because he thought the spotted leaves resembled those of a fawn. “Its two leaves stand up like a fawn’s ears, and this feature with its recurved petals, gives it an alert, wide-awake look.” So it is a flower that should appeal to fisher folk and hunters as well as naturalists.
Other names include yellow lily, yellow bells, rattlesnake tooth violet, rattlesnake violet, yellow snakeleaf, lamb’s tongue, deer’s tongue, snake root, star-striker, and scrofula root, the latter because it was thought to cure that skin disease. Early Pennsylvania settlers were said to favor yellow snowdrop.
Whatever the name, though, trout lilies are flower as delicate as those of bloodroot and last only a few days. We are lucky to have found so many ephemeral spring wildflowers on what one member calls our “voyage of possibilities.” All our possibilities have come true, and we leave, pleased with a day that has blossomed with the sun.
All photos by Dave Bonta (click on them to see larger versions at Flickr)