Thursday, March 31, 2022



          Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) has over 30 common names: Indian Turnip, Wild Turnip, Marsh Pepper, Pepper Turnip, Bog Onion, Brown Dragon (due to the burning taste of the raw plant), Dragon Turnip (due to its turnip-shaped corm), Starchwort, Wake-Robin, Dragon Root, Marsh Turnip, Swamp Turnip, Devil’s Ear, Priest’s Pintle, Indian Cradle, Memory Root, Cuckoo Plant, Three-leaved Arum, Parson-in-the Pulpit, Lady-in-a-Chaise, Lords-and-Ladies, and Cuckoo Pint to name a few. Some authorities recognize 3 species and others simply lump them into one (as if there wasn’t enough confusion with the common names). It’s most common name stems from the flower structure: the “jack” is the spadix or club-like part who stands within the pulpit which is the spathe or curved cover or hood overtop. It ranges from Canada to Florida, west of Kansas. The flower color can be quite variable, especially being yellow or dark striped.

One for the various shades of Jacks.

            The plant is a member of the Arum family (a word that gets its meaning from an Arabic word for “fire”) and as such protects itself by producing calcium oxalate crystals. These crystals can cause a severe burning sensation if it’s eaten raw. It can cause mechanical damage as well. Some people even get skin irritations or blisters from skin contact with it. It use to be a country trick to try and get someone to bite it and suffer the consequences. There is even a story of a Meskwaki tribe who got its revenge on the larger Lakota (Sioux) tribe by inviting them to dinner and then feeding them raw jack-in-the-pulpit in the meat (and then attacking them when they were in great discomfort). Some people have even died from swollen throats after ingesting it. While birds and others can eat the bright red fruits, it can cause issues with people. When we process the seeds for planting, we usually wear gloves and make sure not touch our faces or eyes. 

All parts of the plant, including the green berries, are toxic raw.

            Having said that, a few of its common names point to its edible uses. When thoroughly dried (6 months or so) and roasted, it was eaten like potato chips or made into a flour (which reportedly has a chocolate-like taste).

A Jack with the two stems that denotes this as a female plant.

The ripe fruits turn red and are quite attractive, though still toxic to humans.

  It was also used quite a bit medicinally. North American tribal ethnobotanist Daniel Moerman lists many varied uses: The Cherokee used it for skin diseases, for flatulence, for colds, for intestinal worms, and for boils. The Chippewa (as well as the Menominee and Ojibwa) used it as an eye medicine. The Iroquois were said to even use it as contraceptive along with treating headaches, bruises, sores, fevers, and children’s diarrhea. Interestingly, instead of using as a contraceptive, they used it induce pregnancy in horses. The Pawnee likes to use the seeds in their gourd shells to serve as rattles (as well as for headaches and rheumatism). Some tribes had to ceremoniously eat the raw leaves as an entrance into manhood. During the 16th and 17th century, people used starch made from the roots as a stiffener for clothes, thus the name Starchwort. The bright red berries were also used to make a red dye. During the Civil War, the Confederate states were blockaded from getting most goods. So they tried to find alternatives especially in food and medicines. The person in charge of compiling all of this was Dr. Francis Peyre Porcher who compiled a manuscript entitled the "Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests, Medical, Economical, and Agricultural Being Also a Medical Botany of the Confederate States" commonly referred to as the Confederate Ethnobotany. About "Wake Robins", as he called them as they often open when robins are nesting, he compiled several uses. He described how mixing the fresh roots with honey or syrup could be used for sore throats, particularly in children. He said it was also useful in treating rheumatism and a concoction of the sliced roots for poison ivy. He also described its use for an expectorant, for treating ringworm, skin diseases, in addition to it being used for making bread. 

These young Jacks are many years from producing any flowers, and even more so from producing fruits. At this stage many people misidentify them as trilliums or even poison ivy. 
            This plant has an interesting development in that it can change sex throughout its life. When it first starts growing, it doesn’t produce any flowers. As it gets larger and stores enough nutrients, it will start producing male flowers, have one leaf stalk with three leaflets and be small in size. The flowers on these have a small opening at its base that allows pollinators (often fungus gnats or other small creatures attracted to rotting flesh smells) to escape. Once it builds-up its store of nutrients, it can finally invest in a larger, female flower with two stalks with three leaflets that lacks the opening at the base of the flower. If pollinated, this may then sap so much energy from it that it may revert back to the “cheaper” male plant. This cycle is referred to as sequential hermaphroditism. They can live for 20 years so are a long-lived plant. 


Sunday, March 27, 2022

Common Blue (Confederate) Violets


Common Blue or Confederate Violets 

    So the Common Blue (Confederate) Violet (Viola sororia) is so routinely seen in our yards that they are often ignored. They however have some interesting natural history and folklore tied to them. Indeed much of what follows can also be applied to the other 36 or so species found in both Virginia and Maryland as well. 

    First off, some folklore of violets in general. Violets are said to be the symbol of Athens, as the legendary founder Ion was given violets by nymphs when he arrived at the future place for the city itself. Indeed the common for violets in Greece is usually thought of to be Io. The connection to Greece also goes back to several legends concerning their gods, which were subsequently also applied to Rome. The king of the gods Zeus (Jupiter in Rome) was said to have fallen in love with a beautiful maiden called Io (Viola in Rome). In other versions she is a magical nymph, the daughter of a river god and King Argos. Regardless, Zeus (Jupiter) was constantly after her and tricked her into making love to him. His wife Hera (Juno in Rome) found out about this affair. This was particularly bad as Hera is the goddess of marriage and she wanted to teach the maiden a lesson that would be passed on to all mortals. Here the story differs even more depending on who tells it, but in all of them, Io (Viola) ends up losing. In one version, Hera (Juno) catches up to the mortal and changes her into a white heifer with gadflies biting her until the end of days, and Zeus (Jupiter) was unable to do anything about it. Her tears became the violets. In another version, Zeus (Jupiter) finds out that Hera (Juno) is jealous and angry and so he changed Io (Viola) into a cow, as what Hera has planned would have been so much worse and so she can't find her. Here either her tears turn into the violets, or Zeus (Jupiter) makes the violets appear so she can have something beside grass to eat. No matter what version, Io (Viola) is the ultimate loser. 

    In Rome, people saw the violet as a symbol of innocence and modesty, and would often lay violets on children's graves. Romans also thought that wine made from violet blossoms meant that you could not get drunk. Other Romans used it to prevent hangovers. Medieval Christian folklore believed that the flowers sprung from Adam's tears. Other medieval Christians believed that the flowers of violets once were tall and stood upright, but that changed on Mount Calvary where Jesus was crucified when the shadow of the cross fell on them. Ever since violets have bowed in shame of being present in such sad events. It has been traditional to use the flowers in Good Friday decor around Easter since then as well. Violets are also said to be Mohammed's favorite flower.

Common Blue Violet
    Violets are also said to be a symbol of the Bonapartist movement. Napoleon Bonaparte was said to carry violet flowers with him in his pocket in a locket. It was said that once he was captured and exiled, that he would "return with the violets' of the spring." It was also said to be his wife's favorite, used for their wedding, anniversaries, and finally on her grave. Napoleon was sometimes called "La Coporal de Viollette." His followers used the plant as a code and symbols for their communications. The pansy, a cultivated variety of violet, is said to come from the word "pensee" meaning thought and sentiment. Indeed violets have over 200 common names relating to love and sentiment. 

    Violets also have some other traits in common. Most violets are Myrmecochorous, meaning that seeds have an attachment called an elaiosome that some species of ants find delectable. They then take the seeds to their nests, eat the elaiosome, and discard the seed into their waste areas, planted below ground and guarded by ants. Ants therefore are the main seed dispersers. For more on this interesting way of spreading seeds see my Capital Naturalist Blog here:

    For many violets, including the Common Blue (Confederate) Violet, they also have another reason they're so common. The flowers are easy to see when they're in bloom for pollinators to find. These showy blooms are said to be Chasmogomous, Greek for "open marriage" with the petals highlighting around the pollen-bearing open flower head. However, especially early in the season, pollinators may still not find these flowers to pollinate. Therefore, especially for those spring blooming early species, they hedge their bets by producing Cleistogomous flowers. This is Greek for "closed marriage" and involve flowers that never open. These instead self pollinate, which while not great for genetics, does mean they will always produce seeds for the ants and to germinate. These are usually low to the ground and near the main stem, as they have no need for any pollinators to spot them. This is one reason why some species of violets are so common in our yards. 

A Variegated Fritillary laying eggs on Common Blue Violet
    Violets are said to host 30 caterpillar species, including many of our Fritillary butterfly species. By naturally having their flowers pointing downwards, they protect their chasmogomous flowers from the rain and losing of pollen. Now our Common Blue Violets come in some various color forms. This includes the Confederate form which is commonly found growing side by side with the more common blue colored ones. They are one and the same violet species. 

A Confederate Violet, just another color form of the Common Blue Violet

    Violets are edible, both the leaves and the flowers. Most prefer to eat the blue colored or perhaps white colored ones over the yellow colored ones, some saying these are much more tasty. The flowers add color to salads and most say are better tasting than the leaves. But both leaves and blooms are full of Vitamin C and A. The blooms are often candied or added as a garnish and are pectin rich. These are more often used in syrups, brews, teas, wine, and salads. Having said that, the leaves especially are full of saponins and when eaten in excess can lead to digestive issues. 

    Herbalists have used violets for insomnia, epilepsy, pleurisy, ulcers, eye inflammation, rheumatism, as a laxative, as cough medicine, pain relievers (due to the presence of salicylic acids such as in aspirin), and for treating cancers. The heart shaped leaves led to another name: Heartease, for the idea drawn from the Doctrine of Signatures that it would be good for treating heart illness. The Doctrine of Signatures is a belief that some higher power (god) placed upon the earth cures for most illnesses and placed a sign or signature to let people know what they were good for. The heart shaped leaves meant that some people believed it would be good for hearts. Not just for illness, but also for love potions or as aphrodisiac. 

Common Blue Violets with their heart shaped leaves.

    The Common Blue Violet according to the great North American Ethnobotanist Daniel Moermann, was used by the Cherokee for treating headaches, dysentery, colds, coughs, boils, and used as a spring tonic and for blood disorders. They also used it to keep insects out of corn.  

    The Common Blue (Confederate) Violet is the state flower for Illinois, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin.  Although common, there's much more to these spring blooms than meets the eye. For more on this neat plant, please check out this Capital Naturalist YouTube Video: 

Friday, March 25, 2022

Virginia Bluebells


 Virginia Bluebells, Mertensia virginica, have a lot of common names:  Virginia Cowslip, Oysterleaf, Tree Lungwort, Gentlemen’s Breeches, Puccoon, Virginia Lungwort, Lungwort Oysterleaf, Old Ladies’ Bonnets, and Roanoke Bells. 

Virginia Bluebells are not just blue.

This plant is named after the German botanist Karl Mertens (1764-1831) by Linnaeus. A true ephemeral, this perennial wildflower of riparian or moist woodlands, grows to 2ft tall and then disappears after the trees leaf out. Although blue-flowered most of the time, there are some color variations, particularly in large populations like you have at Riverbend Park above Great Falls and Bull Run. There you sometimes get pink or white ones for example. Some people claim that if you have patches of white flowers it is due to environmental conditions, whereas if you have one white one amongst many blue, it is likely a genetic variation. It should be noted that the buds generally start off pink before blooming anyways. Virginia Bluebells have always been popular with people. The first seeds were believed to have been sent to England in the late 1600's, but they didn't succeed in establishing any until 1730 when John Custis sent some " mountain blew cowslip" from Williamsburg. Thomas Jefferson grew them in multitude on his plantation in Monticello, earning them the name of " Jefferson's blue funnel plants." 

Virginia Bluebells in bud.

According to ethnobotanist Daniel Moerman, there were a few medicinal uses: The Cherokee used it for treating whooping cough and tuberculosis. The Iroquois used it as an antidote for poisons and to treat venereal disease. The name of "lungwort" suggests its use a lung treatment that was applied to several members of the Genus. Another of its common names suggests its use a food plant: Oysterleaf, although I do not think they taste like that, likely it is one of the other species in the genus that gives it the name. The flowers are said to also be edible. Bluebells can be outcompeted by invasives such as lesser celandine.

Virginia Bluebells can be outcompeted by invasives such as lesser celandine.

In my experience, the primary pollinator seem to be bumblebee queens (the stamen and pistil are too far apart for self-fertilization) and other long-tongued bees, although others claim that butterflies and sphinx moths are the primary. I have seen both tiger and zebra swallowtails nectaring at them. However, more and more, I see the introduced Hairy Footed Flower Bee Anthophora plumipes using bluebell flowers each year. Hummingbirds have also been noted as using them. 

Bluebells emerging.

Doug Tallamy lists 3 Lepidoptera (butterfly/moth species) as using it as a host plant for their caterpillars. By hanging downwards, the plant likely has evolved to protect its nectar from rain washing it away and also loses the petals rather quickly after pollination, increasing the chances that pollinators visit new, unpollinated flowers and not waste time with fertilized blooms. In cultivation, it is generally interplanted with later emerging plants such as ferns that will fill in once the leaves die back. It also is often planted at the top of sloping areas when possible where it will generally reseed itself along the way down and form clumps. They can form large colonies both in the wild and in cultivation. The flowers are bell-like with 5 petals fused into a tube hanging downwards. The plants emerge a purple leaf color before turning to green, a common trait in the Borage family. This plant gained the Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Garden Merit.  A beautiful wildflower, people should go look for them during the first or second week of April (usually) to enjoy them at their peak.

A Virginia Bluebell patch.


Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Yellow Trout Lily


     So here’s a little bit on a common spring wildflower, the Yellow Trout Lily Erithronium americanum. There are 2 other local species: White Trout Lily E. albidum, is rarer, washes down from the mountains to find niches along the rivers and has less mottled, grayer leaves usually; and the other is Dimpled Trout Lily, E. umbilicatum, is also more mountainous and prefers more acidic, infertile soils. This plant goes by a variety of different names: American Trout Lily, Dogtooth Violet, Fawn Ears, Fawn Lily, Adder’s Tongue, Yellow Troutlily, Yellow Trout-Lily, Yellow Lily, Yellow Bells, Yellow Snowdrops, Amberbells, Yellow Bastard Lily, Rattlesnake Violet, Rattlesnake Tooth, Yellow Snakeleaf, Lamb’s Tongue, Snake Root, Star-striker, and Scrofula Root to name a few. The variety of names is due to several reasons. See if you can figure out which ones listed above are due to the fish-like mottling of the leaves (along with its appearance when the fishing for trout was said to be the best)? How about the snake-like mottling of the leaves or the appearance of a snake-like tongue when it blooms between its 2 leaves? Others think the pattern is more fawn-like, thus some of those names. How about the supposed dog-like shape of the roots (corms), at least in Old World members of the genus? Since only those plants with 2 leaves bloom, you get the comparison to ears. The last name hints at its use to treat a skin condition. They are true lilies and not violets though despite some common names. The Genus name Erithronium refers to the red color of some of the European species. Naturalist John Burroughs is said to be the first to use the names Trout-lily and Fawn-lily. All in all, quite a few names it can go by. 

A carpet of Yellow Trout Lilies help control erosion along a riverbank.

     Although they can be quite abundant and form an ephemeral groundcover, very few plants produce flowers, some say about 1%. Some say the secret supposedly lies not only in how healthy and old the plant is but also that it must make contact with a hard surface like a rock. Some can therefore go very deep (going deeper each year up to a foot down) and few in a colony actually flower. It also is believed that it takes plants up to 8 years to store up enough energy to bloom. It spreads quickly though asexually underground using "droppers", a tubular fleshy stem growing from its parent bulb (corm). The anthers (the part of the flower that produces pollen) can range from yellow to brick red. People are studying why there's such a variation in these colors. Like many flowers, they close up when it gets dark and point downwards anyways to protect the nectar and pollen stores. It is a spring ephemeral, the leaves and flowers dying back as the trees leaf out and it can't get as much sunlight. Some colonies are said to have been dated to 300 years old, so again age and health is more likely why only certain ones bloom. The sometimes vast groundcover of single leaves are said to be good at holding back soil and controlling soil erosion. They prefer to grow in fertile wooded flood plains. 

A close-up of a Yellow Trout Lily showing the variation in the anther colors.

  The flowers have 6 backward pointing recurved tepals, a combination of petals and sepals that protect the buds. Bumblebees and the Trout-lily Mining bee Andrena erythronis (a species which prefers this plant for its pollen) are the main pollinators, but even then only 10% of pollinated plants produce seeds. For when it actually does produce seeds in a seed capsule, this plant relies on ants to help disperse it. Like about a third of our spring wildflowers, this is a myrmecochorous plant. It grows an elaiosome on its seed coat which certain species of ants find delectable. They take the treat and discard the seed, often in a rich and protected area where it will have a better chance of growing. Few other wildlife feed on it, though deer sometimes do. Some think the small size and mottled leaves help to hide them from herbivores on the forest floor.

Yellow Trout Lilies in bloom.

     As for ethnobotany, the Genus had lots of uses besides treating the skin for scrofula. Country lore says a tea could be made to rid yourself of hiccups. It was often used in North America by herbalists to induce vomiting and has been used in many types of poultices to treat ulcers and tumors. A tea was made by some tribes for stomach ailments and some roots were eaten as food (the Japanese species is said to be used quite a bit in food dishes). Ethnobotanist Daniel Moerman adds that the Cherokee used the root as a fever reducer and for fits of feinting, while the crushed leaves were used to treat wounds. They would also use it ritually, supposedly chewing it and then spitting it into the water to help them catch fish. Moerman also relates that various Iroquois tribes used the roots as a contraceptive in addition to its use as a skin treatment. The Winnebagos ate the corms (roots) after boiling. Old world species were supposedly used by Roman soldiers for sore feet. 

     Truly there’s more to this wildflower than meets the eye, no matter which name you choose to call it. So keep an eye out for it this spring now that you know a bit more about this wild neighbor who carpets our forests but only hangs around in the spring. 

White Trout Lily for comparison.