Tag Archives: double dormant

Cucumber root — Medeola virginiana

A colony of cucumber root (Medeola virginiana)
A colony of cucumber root (Medeola virginiana)

The lily family (Liliaceae) contains many plants that make for excellent edibles, and cucumber root (Medeola virginiana) is no exception. Cucumber root gets it’s name from its flavor — very much like cucumber, but sweeter. The leaves have a flavor also like cucumber. All parts of the plant may be eaten raw or cooked, with a caveat regarding the berries (although non-toxic, they have a taste which may not be the most palatable in the world to us of human persuasion).

The roots of cucumber root are generally fairly small, rarely but occasionally approaching the size of a finger. They have a texture that is firm and crisp. The humble cucumber root, Medeola virginiana, is a slow-growing, long-lived perennial ranging in size from about 3 inches to nearly 30 inches. It is the only species in its genus, one of its closest relatives being the genus Clintonia.

The tuberous rhizome of the aptly-named cucumber root (Medeola virginiana)
The tuberous rhizome of the aptly-named cucumber root (Medeola virginiana)

Medeola virginiana reproduces in two ways. The first way is vegetatively, through underground root-stems called stolons emerging from out of the fattened tuber-like portions of the rhizome or rootstock. When reproducing vegetatively, each fattened tuber-like rhizome produces one, two, or sometimes three lateral stolons in a year. As these stolons send up new suckers with above-ground leaves that start sucking up sunlight of their own in following years, they begin fattening up the area beneath their own portion of rhizome. At this point the stolons may be severed and you’ll effectively have two clonal versions of the plant.

The other way this plant reproduces is sexually, through the production of seed. Medeola virginiana however seems highly-dependent on cross-pollination between genetically individual plants in order to get good fertilization and seed-production, and therefore I believe that populations lacking genetic diversity produce little if any seed at all. *

* (As evidence I could point to the size difference between the stamens and the pistils, the stamens being the much shorter of the two. Called dichogamy, this is a physical mechanism discouraging self-pollination and thus inbreeding.)

Restoring diversity to cucumber root patches is part of the work of ecological restoration. Where I come from, hardly any of the cucumber root patches that I know produce much in the way of berries come late summer. Instead, what I find are relatively small patches which are largely clonal — reproducing for years primarily in a vegetative way. In a region where many of our forests are relatively young and stand before a legacy of clear-cutting, selective timbering, agricultural grazing (or even excessive deer-browse pressure), a lack of genetic diversity in our cucumber root stands is the result of human environmental degradations either directly or indirectly.

Flowering cucumber root (Medeola virginiana)
Flowering cucumber root (Medeola virginiana)

Medeola virginiana — the cucumber root — first emerges out of the ground in the early spring about March or April. With its neat symmetry it is very attractive and beautiful (surely one of my favorites).

Younger, sexually immature cucumber root plants grow above the ground only as a downy stem with a whorl of green lanceolate leaves at the apex. In older plants, those which are sexually mature, a second and smaller whorl of leaves grows above the first one on an elongated stem.

Appearing by late May or June as just a cluster of tiny, round, unopened buds above the smaller secondary whorl of leaves, these are the first signs of flowering. As the buds open to reveal pale-yellow flowers, the pedicels (or stems of the flowers) droop, dangle, or “nod” beneath the top whorl of leaves. Eventually the flowers will curl back upwards again (perhaps after they have been pollinated). And they remain in the upward position above the leaf whorl as the fertilized flowers turn into berries that ripen to the color dark blue-black.

The nodding yellow flowers of cucumber root (Medeola virginiana)
The nodding yellow flowers of cucumber root (Medeola virginiana)
The pale-yellow flowers of cucumber root (Medeola virginiana)
The pale-yellow flowers of cucumber root (Medeola virginiana)

As the berries ripen from green to black, the apex of the plant turns a crimson red (on the flower pedicels and inner leaf margins). This perhaps serves as a guide to birds or other animals, who flying and flitting about through the forest canopy may notice these red centers as target signs, like a bulls-eye guidepost, creating contrast against the black berries and leading to a meal.

Ripened berries of cucumber root (Medeola virginiana) in late August / early September.
Ripened berries of cucumber root (Medeola virginiana) in late August / early September.

The berries ripen in August or early September. Without predation, the berries will sometimes remain upon the plants until they dry out and split, or fall to the ground of their own accord.

Ripened berries of cucumber root on a plant approaching its dormancy in the autumn.
Ripened berries of cucumber root on a plant approaching its dormancy in the autumn.

Inside each berry is anywhere from 2-6 hard, mahogany-colored seeds. If planted fresh they may sometimes germinate the following spring, but in many instances they adopt a strategy of double-dormancy, waiting 18 months or until after the second winter before deciding it is safe to emerge.

The seeds may be stored cool and dry without losing much viability, although like many of our eastern woodland herbaceous perennials, it is generally advisable to sow them quickly, rather than hold onto them for awhile.

Fresh seeds and berry-skins of cucumber root (Medeola virginiana)
Fresh seeds and berry-skins of cucumber root (Medeola virginiana)

The cucumber root seems to prefer slightly-dry, acidic soils underneath a woodland canopy, where it is found most abundantly. They may thrive under a deciduous canopy (where the leaves drop off in the fall and grow back in the spring) or under a mixed canopy of deciduous and evergreen species together. In the wild it is often found on the up-slopes above the moister, wetter soils where more mesic species thrive down in the ravines and valleys and coves. However, the cucumber root is not confined strictly to these drier part of the hillsides — it is also found growing in the valleys and the coves and in moister, boggier areas.

I harvested my Medeola virginiana seed in areas where a high-level of population diversity was present, and the cucumber root grew almost as a continuous groundcover for several acres and along certain elevation gradients, forming a band of herbage encircling the mountains.

Cucumber root hates begin transplanted and once dug, it will in most cases wilt and go dormant immediately, emerging again only in the following spring. And though it expresses a preference for slightly-dry soils, Medeola virginiana is sensitive to too much light and will die in full-sun or mostly-sun conditions.

I don’t have numbers yet of exactly how many years it takes Medeola virginiana to grow through it’s entire life-cycle, from seed to flower, but my guess is that it is in the same category as the slow-growing trilliums and wild leeks. As a rule of thumb, expect two years for germination, and another five years until the plant begins flowering: all-in-all, a roughly seven-year investment.

Where cucumber root grows uncommonly and in small patches, and because it is a sensitive and slow-growing plant, it is advisable not to dig or harvest the roots for food at all. With careful tending and population management through the intentional gathering and planting of seed, Medeola virginiana may be restored to a place of abundance and healthy diversity within our forests, and from there it can serve as a food-source for pollinators and people in coming generations.

The leaves of cucumber root turning color preceding fall dormancy.
The leaves of cucumber root turning color preceding fall dormancy.

Solomon’s Seal — Polygonatum species

Giant Solomon's Seal flowers (Polygonatum biflorum var. commutatum)
Giant Solomon’s Seal flowers (Polygonatum biflorum var. commutatum)

Solomon’s Seal (genus Polygonatum) is a really cool native plant of eastern and central North America. It is in the asparagus family, Asparagaceae. The young shoots are edible raw or cooked just as garden asparagus — they are mucilaginous but flavorful and nutritive. The flower blossoms are a real delicacy — tender and sweet. Even the rhizome has been used as a human staple food rich in starch. It is from the rhizome that we get the common name “Solomon’s Seal.” Somewhere down the line, somebody thought that the indented “seals” left behind on the rootstock from last year’s shoots had the quality of a royal stamp to them, so they named the plant King Solomon’s Seal. Go figure! But the name has stuck.

Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum biflorum) in its native woodland habitat.
Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum) in its native woodland habitat.

Although Solomon’s Seal is usually found in mesic forests under a deciduous canopy, they grow quite happily in full sun as well. The shoots emerge in the early spring, reach stature and flower by the late spring, and grow into ripened fruits by the late summer. The shoots die back in the fall and remain dormant until the following spring.

The two main North American species of Solomon’s Seal are Polygonatum biflorum (Smooth Solomon’s Seal) and Polygonatum pubescens (Hairy Solomon’s Seal). Additionally there is Polygonatum biflorum var. commutatum, sometimes simply called Polygonatum commutatum, which is known as Giant Solomon’s Seal. It is my favorite of the bunch.

P. pubescens has hairs on the underside of the leaves and this is one way in which it can be distinguished from P. biflorum. Polygonatum biflorum is also generally larger than P. pubescens, but not as large as P. commutatum. Polygonatum commutatum may be distinguished from P. biflorum by its stalk which is straight and leafless for almost two feet above the ground before it begins to curl and unfurl with leaves.

There are several east Asian Polygonatum species, as well. One of the most popular of these is the variegated Solomon’s Seal, commonly seen in gardens. It is a varietal of Polygonatum odoratum. There’s also dwarf Solomon’s Seal, Polygonatum humile, among others. All have more or less the same culinary properties and are cultivated in the same ways.

The tender blossoms of Solomon's Seal are a delicacy.
The tender blossoms of Solomon’s Seal are a delicacy.
The young unfurled shoots of Solomon's Seal are another spring-time delicacy. Harvesting the shoots does not seriously hurt the plant, which sends up new replacement shoots after the first are cut (much like asparagus).
The young unfurled shoots of Solomon’s Seal are another spring-time delicacy. Harvesting the shoots does not seriously hurt the plant, which sends up new replacement shoots after the first are cut (much like asparagus).
Rhizome of Solomon's Seal showing the "seals." These rhizomes may serve as starchy staple food.
Rhizome of Solomon’s Seal showing the “seals.” These rhizomes may serve as starchy staple food. The rhizomes may also be  cut and up and divided and replanted for further propagation.

I love gathering seed of Solomon’s Seal and rewilding it into new woodland areas, or even intentionally sowing into dense patches. Solomon’s Seal is very valuable as a food crop. Whether or not the rhizomes are being consumed, the shoots and flowers alone are fantastic, and because they grow even under a closed deciduous canopy, they could be ideal for farmers who wish to provide more vegetables to their customers, and have some wooded areas to garden in. Imagine a whole hillside of Solomon’s Seal — that’s a huge amount of springtime food! And it’s a perennial requiring little management, no weeding, and no hoeing… A big improvement over conventional agriculture, in my opinion.

Giant Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum biflorum var. commutatum) with ripened berries in the late summer.
Giant Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum var. commutatum) with ripened berries in the late summer.
Ripened berries of Giant Solomon's Seal.
Ripened berries of Giant Solomon’s Seal.
Each berry contains about 5-8 seeds.
Each berry contains about 5-8 seeds.

I gather the ripe berries of Giant Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum var. commutatum) around mid-September. The seeds contained inside are double-dormant, requiring two winter cold periods before germination. It may take up to several years before maturity and flowering depending on the species and the conditions. While the seeds are probably tolerant of some drying, I always sow immediately or store in a soil mixture for later sowing.

Bloodroot — Sanguinaria canadensis

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

Bloodroot is one of the most iconic spring wildflowers of eastern North America. Emerging in the early spring and blooming for only a few days, you could miss it if you blink! I love going on long walks in the early spring and finding the closed bloodroot flowers emerging pink along the wooded hillsides. When they first appear they are wrapped in a blanket made by the rolling, intricate-lobes of the leaf.

After the flowers have unfolded, they are pearly and beautiful and white. In less than just one week, the petals will have fallen to the ground, dropping off their buds one by one. While the flowering of bloodroot is brief, the foliage persists into the summer.

Bloodroot flower close-up
Bloodroot flower close-up

Sanguinaria canadensis, the eponymous bloodroot, is in the poppy family Papaveraceae. The poppies are known for being lactiferous, meaning they bleed a milky latex substance. Bloodroot bleeds a red sap.

The red sap of bloodroot has been used as a dye and as a body paint. Another common name for bloodroot is red puccoon. Puccoon is an Algonquian word denoting a plant used as dye. Among other well-known puccoon roots are yellow puccoon (goldenseal — Hydrastis canadensis) and hoary puccoon (Lithospermum spp. — yields a red pigment).

Bloodroot is also an important medicinal plant. It is used mainly for its antiseptic properties, and also in small doses as a respiratory-system stimulant. I’ll defer to the herbalists for better information on bloodroot’s medicinal applications. A Google search reveals lots of information, such as this general overview.

Bloodroots emerging out of the ground in early spring.
Bloodroots emerging out of the ground in early spring.

In southeastern Pennsylvania, Sanguinaria canadensis usually emerges around late March, as soon as the threat of snow goes away and day-time temperatures begin to warm. Down south, bloodroot can be spotted in February, and up in southeastern Canada bloodroot might come up as late as May.

Anatomy of Sanguinaria canadensis
Anatomy of Sanguinaria canadensis

In the picture above we can see the anatomy of Sanguinaria canadensis. It grows from a fleshy rhizome that is a deep red color giving it the name bloodroot. The rhizome may be divided as a propagation method, or as a gentle harvest technique (taking only a portion of the root and leaving the rest to grow in the following year). The flowers and leaves grow individually from separate shoots off the rhizome.

Bloodroot seed ripens in late spring.
Bloodroot seed ripens in late spring.

The seed pods of Sanguinaria canadensis ripen in the late spring or early summer. I gather seed during the last days of May in Pennsylvania. When ripe, the pods should easily split open upon handling. Left alone, they will spill their contents to the ground below. You will know the seeds are ripe when they have matured to a rich mahogany color.

Each seed bears an elaiosome, which is a fleshy, lipid attachment made up of fats and sugars. These elaiosome attachments are attractive to ants, who gather the seeds off the ground and carry them into their underground colonies. There, they eat the elaiosome and then cast the seed bit into their rubbish pile… conveniently still located under the ground! Here the seeds await germination while enjoying safe shelter and ideal conditions. This process of ant-plant symbiosis is called myrmecochory.

Bloodroot seed
Bloodroot seed
Bloodroot seed
Bloodroot seed

Bloodroot seeds are double-dormant and require two cold periods or two stratifications before germination. If sown in the late spring or early summer, the seedlings will not emerge in the following spring, but the spring after.

The seeds of bloodroot are intolerant of drying and must be stored cool and moist. Placing them outside with soil in a well-drained container such as a pot is an effective low-tech storage method. Otherwise, they will need to be kept moist-packed and refrigerated, or sown immediately.

Once germinated, bloodroot should be grown directly in the ground — it does not seem to do well growing in a container. It may take several years before a plant puts out its first flower. While I do not know exactly how many years, I treat it as a seven-year-plant much like camas, Trillium, or wild leeks.

Bloodroot is uncommon or threatened in many places, and so I like to spread its seed around in whatever woodlands it will take to well. Although it is tough and resilient once established, and plants can be very long-lived, it is sensitive to too much light and high-sun conditions, and thus has been exterminated from many second-growth forests recovering from a legacy of clearcutting or animal-grazing. This is one older forest species which really requires mesic or moist soil conditions to thrive.

Spring beauty — Claytonia virginica

Claytonia virginica -- the Virginia spring beauty
Claytonia virginica — the narrow-leaved Virginia spring beauty (photo: Wikipedia)

Spring beauty is one of the earliest wildflowers to appear and it really lives up to its name! Look at those beautiful little flowers. The first leaves can emerge in late February and the flowers bloom from March through May. In April the woodlands are alive with a living carpet of spring beauty…

Woodland carpet of spring beauty flowers
Woodland carpet of spring beauty flowers (April 22nd, 2016)

Spring beauty is classed in the miner’s-lettuce family Montiaceae (it was formerly classed in the purslane family, Portulacaceae). In the eastern temperate forests bioregion, there are principally two main species: Claytonia virginica, the Virginia spring beauty, and Claytonia caroliniana, the Carolina spring beauty. The Virginia spring beauty is narrow-leaved; the leaves of Carolina spring beauty are decidely broader. Flowers in both species range from white to pink and everywhere in between.

Carolina spring beauty, Claytonia caroliniana, at The Pocket on Pigeon Mountain in Georgia.
Carolina spring beauty, Claytonia caroliniana, at The Pocket on Pigeon Mountain in Georgia.

Within Claytonia virginica, there are two yellow-flowered varieties. One, Claytonia virginica var. hammondiae, is limited in distribution exclusively to a small area of northwestern New Jersey. Another yellow-flowered variety, Claytonia virginica f. lutea, is endemic to parts of Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Yellow spring beauty, Claytonia virginica var. hammondiae
Yellow spring beauty, Claytonia virginica var. hammondiae (photo: Jim Wright)

To the Ojibwe of the Great Lakes region, spring beauty is known as meeautikwaeaugpineeg in the Anishinaabemowin language. To the Gosiute of the Great Basin, it is known as dzina in the Western Shoshone language.

The western species include Claytonia lanceolata the western spring beauty, Claytonia umbellata the Great Basin spring beauty, and Claytonia megarhiza the alpine spring beauty, and several others.

Claytonia megarhiza, alpine spring beauty
Claytonia megarhiza, alpine spring beauty (photo: Wikipedia)

Tommy Stoughton, a PhD student at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire has an excellent website, Claytonia.org. His website features many of the western species and has research highlighting taxonomy and phylogenetics. I particularly like his page on Claytonia ogilviensis which is found among the Ogilvie Mountains of Canada’s Yukon Territory. Check out its tuber!

Claytonia ogilviensis tuber (photo: Tommy Stoughton, Plymouth State University)
Claytonia ogilviensis tuber (photo: Tommy Stoughton, Plymouth State University)

As a food, Claytonia is simply excellent. Rich in starches as well as the vitamins A and C, the tuber is a staple food and has a cooked flavor much like a buttery potato or a chestnut. Eaten raw, the flavor takes on stronger tones. There is a mild bitterness or spiciness if the brown papery skin surrounding the inner white flesh of the tuber is eaten. The tubers are typically fairly small (it has another common name “fairy spuds,” after all), generally ranging in size from a grain of corn, a garbanzo bean, or to the diameter of a quarter. In the case of ideal growing conditions or long age, the tubers can become larger still. I have found some nearly the size of my fist! Larger and older tubers have many more stems and leaves and flowers than the younger ones.

The edible corms or tubers of spring beauty
The edible corms or tubers of spring beauty

Besides the roots, the stems, leaves, and flowers are all nutritious. Every bit of the plant is edible. My preferred method of preparation is cooked whole: roots, tubers, shoots, leaves, and all. Boiled in water, lightly salted, and served. Mmm!

A springtime meal with Claytonia
A springtime meal with Claytonia

In my experiences with different species of Claytonia, I’ve found there can be substantial differences. The roots of Carolina spring beauty are darker and purpler than the tan or brown roots of Virginia spring beauty seen above. The Carolina’s purple coloration like a beet, comes from a plant flavonoid pigment called anthocyanin. The presence of high anthocyanin content in the root coloration could be an indicator for more phytochemistry happening in the plant, as compared with the Virginia species. The flavor of the broadleaved Carolina spring beauty is superior to the narrow-leaved Virginia spring beauty, in my estimation. It is richer, with less harsh overtones, and has a sweetness to it. Also, the leaves of Carolina spring beauty are decidedly superior to Virginia spring beauty — they are sweet and succulent very much like miner’s lettuce, if that is a reference you can relate to (miner’s lettuce is found within the genus Claytonia too).

Propagation of this springtime wildflower is straightforward, but collection is a little tricky. After the flowers have been pollinated and begin to fade away during the month of May, the petals fall off to reveal a small seed capsule clasped between the sepals.

Spring beauty flower with seed capsules
Spring beauty flower with seed capsules (May 2nd, 2016)
Claytonia virginica seed capsules
Claytonia virginica seed capsules (May 2nd, 2016)

In early May, the seed capsules still need about a week or two to ripen and mature. This happens from the top of the plant downwards. When mature, the capsule splits open, catapulting tiny black seeds in every direction! They can end up two, three, even four feet away from the parent plant. An excellent dispersal tactic.

Claytonia virginica seed capsule about to pop
Claytonia virginica seed capsule about to pop (May 5th, 2016)

To collect the seeds, gather the whole stems of spring beauty after the spherical seed capsule clasped within the calyx has begun to turn brown (these seed capsules are seen in the photo three pictures above). At this point, around mid- to late-May, eruption is imminent, so leave the stems in a bag or a box. As each capsule explodes, the seeds remain caught inside of the bag or the box.

Spring beauty seeds (Claytonia virginica)
Collected spring beauty seeds (Claytonia virginica — May 8th, 2016

Wildflower propagation guides say that Claytonia virginica seeds contain an elaiosome: a small attachment made of fats and sugars attractive to ants who aid in dispersal. On the face of it, I’ve had my doubts. Any elaiosome present may be so tiny as to be scarcely perceptible — is it really there? And why enlist the aid of ants for dispersal when the plant already catapults seeds feet away, anyhow? It turns out my skepticism is unfounded, though: ant foraging behavior of elaiosome-laden seeds has been observed for Claytonia virginica. It seems this is a double-strategy. First they catapult their seeds far and wide, then thanks to the elaiosomes, ensure they find a safe resting place in moist, cool ground prior to germination.

Because of the elaiosome, seeds of Claytonia virginica cannot dry out or they rapidly lose viability. They must be kept moist and in a cool, dark place. (It is worth noting that the western species such as Claytonia lanceolata and C. megarhiza have seeds that do tolerate drying. This makes sense when we consider the habitat of western spring beauty species — dry, hot summers characterized by seasonal droughts.) Virginia spring beauty seed is double-dormant before germinating.

Spring beauty’s value as a food source makes it is a great candidate for ecological plantings and rewilding back into the landscape as a first food. Among the many virtues of spring beauty is its ability to grow nearly anywhere. They will grow in shade, as well as in meadows with full-sun. They grow in lawns and along roadsides. They grow under brambles and thickets. They grow beneath the mature canopy of an old-growth forest. They grow in dry, rocky soils and naked mountain slopes.

In the places where spring beauty is found, its abundance can be overwhelming. In places where it is not, its absence can be eerie. Spring beauty has been removed from the soil seedbank in many landscapes that have been overgrazed by cattle, trodden by pigs, or destroyed through years of plowing and annual agriculture. The recovery in such places of a native seedbank alongside a healthy, diverse, and regenerative ecology is a process excruciatingly slow. Perhaps there will never be a full recovery. With human aid however, we can help rebuild what was once destroyed and strengthen what now remains. Spring beauty can help us do this — and we can help it.