Tag Archives: spring ephemerals

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.

Spotted Geranium — Geranium maculatum

Spotted Geranium (Geranium maculatum)
Spotted Geranium (Geranium maculatum)

Spotted geranium is a woodland perennial wildflower in the Gerianaceae family. Its Latin nomenclature is Geranium maculatum — the etymology of Geranium comes from the Greek geranos meaning “crane,” in reference to the fruiting capsules of this genus which resemble the beak of a crane, and the species name maculatum means “spotted” and describes the mottling of the leaves.

Spotted Geranium is generally abundant where it is found. They are native all over eastern and central North America in temperate deciduous forests, and hardy from zones 3-8. It is clump-forming, and tolerates a wide variety of soil conditions. These spring ephemeral wildflowers thrive in the understory of a closed canopy deciduous woodland, where they bloom in the early spring before the leaves grow in and cast shade. They are also hardy to some areas with partial sun, such as woodland edges. They seem to like some lingering moisture and cooler soil temperatures however, and therefore they do not do well in areas with full-sun.

The flowers bloom in early March in warm southeastern zones, and they bloom in April in cooler zones. In Pennsylvania I usually see them starting around mid-April, and the seed ripening around the end of May and early June.

Spotted Geranium
Spotted Geranium
Spotted Geranium flower close-up
Spotted Geranium flower close-up

Geranium species are in the group of eudicots called Rosids, which often have flower parts in fours or fives. Their pink-to-purple flowers are quite lovely, and are considered perfect flowers, meaning they contain both male and female reproductive parts. Geranium maculatum is self-fertile and produces its elongated fruiting capsules in the late spring. The seeds ripen approximately 6 weeks after the flowers first bloom.

The fruiting capsules are made up of five chambers which each enclose a single seed at their base. At first, the fruiting capsules are green, but when the seed has ripened, the fruiting capsules turn black (seeds ripened to maturity are also black). After darkening, the capsules dehisce, or split open, from their bases curling upwards, releasing in the process each seed and flicking them a short distance away from the parent plant.

Geranium maculatum unripe seed
Geranium maculatum unripe seed
Geranium maculatum ripened seed
Geranium maculatum ripened seed
Geranium maculatum after seed dispersal
Geranium maculatum after seed dispersal

Geranium maculatum seeds
Geranium maculatum seeds

Geranium maculatum seeds may be stored dry in a cool area. They germinate naturally in the early spring following a period of 2-3 months of cold stratification (also known as winter 🙂 ). It can take two or three years from seed germination to mature flowering. The flowers of spotted geranium are loved by pollinators such as bees and butterflies. They are easy to grow and ideal for reintroduction and restoration to damaged and degraded woodlands. This is also a worthwhile candidate for rewilding into landscapes where this species is not already present in the seedbank — more diversity is healthy, and beautiful!

Camas — Camassia species

Camassia scilloides, our eastern woodland native camas
Camassia scilloides, the eastern woodland native camas, in all its spring glory.

I have a confession to make. I’m in love. The first time I saw her, my heart skipped a beat. There she was, stretching out in the spring-time sun, dressed in baby blues and be-jeweled in yellow. Her delicate scent was carried by the gentle spring breeze. She was so gorgeous and I fell for her right on the spot. Who is she? She’s a plant, Camassia, of course! What an elegant beauty!

The graceful flowers of the camas open up in the early spring, and unfurl like a wave from the bottom of the stalk to the top. The six tepals range from nearly white to the deepest of blues. The perfect flowers of Camassia are hermaphroditic, bearing both male and female reproductive parts (even though I refer to her as a she), and have ovaries that are pale-green, and yellow pollen-producing anthers. The flowering stalk is anywhere from one- to two-and-a-half-feet high (or nearly four feet in the case of C. leichtlinii!).

Aside from being so beautiful, camas also has a long history as an indigenous first food staple. The word camas (kæ-mus) or “quamash” comes to us from the word qém’es in the Niimíipu language of the Nez Perce, referring to the food bulbs of the Camassia plant, which they traded to the starved crew members of Lewis & Clark’s Corps of Discovery upon Idaho’s Weippe prairie in 1805. That was probably the first experience with this plant as a food that white-faced colonials ever had.

There are six species within the genus Camassia, endemic only to the North American continent. Although more famous in the Pacific Northwest, few realize that of our continent’s five edible species, two are endemic to east of the Rocky Mountains. There are six Camassia species total:

  • Camassia quamash — Common camas, or small camas. Distributed throughout the Pacific Northwest and the northern Rockies. Blooms April-June.
  • Camassia leichtlinii — Greater camas, or large camas. Distributed throughout the Pacific Northwest, California, and the Sierra Nevadas. Blooms April-May.
  • Camassia howellii — Howell’s camas. Endemic to western Oregon where it is generally found around serpentine soils. Blooms April-May.
  • Camassia cusickii — Cussick’s camas. Because of the high level of saponins in the bulb, this is the only Camassia species considered inedible, however, it may be useful to soap-makers. Distributed throughout the Pacific Northwest, California, and the northern Rockies. Blooms May-June.
  • Camassia angusta — Southern wild hyacinth, or prairie camas. Most frequent in the black belt prairies of Texas and into the central mid-West. Bloom is later than C. scilloides, usually June.
  • Camassia scilloides — Atlantic camas, or eastern wild hyacinth. Native to rich woodlands and bottomlands from Georgia to Ontario, and from Kansas eastward to Maryland. Blooms April-May.

Camassia are in the asparagus family, Asparagaceae, and are in the agave subfamily, Agavoideae (formerly its own family, the Agavaceae). The most similar genus to Camassia would be Hastingsia (rushlilies), Chlorogalum (soaproots), and Schoenolirion (sunnybells).  While Chlorogalum, a southwestern native, has generally been harvested for soap rather than food, at least one species, Chlorogalum purpureum (purple amole) has been harvested for the edibility of its bulbs. Among these four genus, edibility seems to depend on the amount of saponins present (which are foaming, soapy molecules).

I’ll be featuring mostly the eastern camas, Camassia scilloides, as it is the species most available to me in my bioregion of the Appalachian Highlands and Piedmont.

Camassia scilloides may be known by several common names. Atlantic camas or eastern camas both describe its eastern habitat. Wild hyacinth or sometimes woodland hyacinth describes its resemblance to the common ornamental garden bulbs. Sometimes you’ll see Indian wild hyacinth used, which is of course referring to the traditional gathering and preparation of this plant by native peoples. Beargrass is another name for C. scilloides, though this one being a little older in its use and not so popular today. The Beargrass Creek outside Lexington, Kentucky, for example, was named for this plant (Camassia scilloides – Beargrass in the Bluegrass [.PDF]). I’m drawn towards calling this plant woodland camas, even though it does well in full-sun too. Lastly, there’s always simply “camas,” with no further distinctions.

Camassia scilloides emerging in the early spring.
Camassia scilloides grows in colonies and resembles grass before flowering. Hence the common name, “beargrass.”
Camassia flower raceme development
Camassia flower raceme development. Camas is in the asparagus family — can you see the resemblance?
Camassia flower development
Camassia flower development. Early spring.
Flowering Camassia
Flowering Camassia in the months of April or May. This photo was taken April 1st, 2017 in northwest Georgia.
Look at that beauty!
Look at that beauty!

Look for the grass-like leaves of camas emerging in the late-winter in the south or early spring elsewhere. Often false garlic (Nothoscordum bivalve) and the woodland camas grow together in the same patch and habitat, and the early leaves can look very similar to each other sometimes. The camas leaves are broader than the false garlic, curl inwards slightly, have a central vein, and radiate around a central point where the flower’s stalk (or raceme) will later grow up. The bulbs of false garlic (also known as crow poison) are mildly toxic, and to distinguish them from the camas there are a couple of reliable indicators. The first is visual appearance. The bulbs of camas are covered in a dark brown skin, whereas the bulbs of false garlic are white like an onion. When it comes to taste, the raw bulbs of camas taste gummy and have a flavor and texture not unlike squash, but the bulbs of false garlic have a harsh, acrid, or bitter flavor which ought to turn you away. Even if it doesn’t, there’s probably not too much to worry about aside from some discomfort and upset!

From a distance, common grasses may also be mistaken for camas leaves. More time in the field and personal experience will quickly lead one to learn how to discriminate the woodland camas from its look-alikes. Once in flower though, the camas is unmistakable and unforgettable!

False garlic (Nothoscordum bivalve) often grows near Camassia scilloides, and in the early spring before any flowering the foliage can appear similar and fool the novice forager. The bulb of false garlic, also known as crow poison, is mildly toxic, but is mostly harmless.
False garlic (Nothoscordum bivalve) often grows near Camassia scilloides, and in the early spring before any flowering the foliage can appear similar and fool the novice forager. The bulb of false garlic, also known as crow poison, is mildly toxic, but is probably mostly harmless.

Under favorable conditions, mature plants of the woodland camas can grow good-sized bulbs. It takes at least five years for a newly germinated seedling to grow into a flowering adult, and the camas may go on to live for many more years after that. When the onion-like bulbs reach a certain size or maturity, they begin to divide and vegetatively clone themselves. Our eastern camas, Camassia scilloides, is probably slightly larger than the western small camas, Camassia quamash, although it is notably smaller than the west’s greater camas, Camassia leichtlinii.

Camassia scilloides is hardy and tolerates a wide range of soil pH and conditioning. It’s major requirements are moist soil in the spring and enough sunlight to do its thing. Interestingly, our eastern woodland camas can grow in the shade of a deciduous forest, having adapted to a spring ephemeral niche. By the time the flowers have finished and the seed is ripening, the forest canopy is just closing in. In the wild, I often see the Camassia scilloides growing in limestone-rich areas. I believe this is more coincidental than causal, but the camas bulbs probably do get a real benefit from the calcium-richness of limestone-derived soils. The species is usually found in rich Appalachian coves, moist bottomlands, floodplains along rivers and creeks, and in some prairie remnants.

Camassia scilloides growing in southern Illinois at Cave Creek Glade Preserve
Camassia scilloides growing in southern Illinois at Cave Creek Glade Preserve

I’ve found it under a diverse canopy of hardwoods and ecosystem types. In some bottomland coves with rich, moist soil, I’ve seen camas growing underneath a canopy of sweetgum, buckeye, ash, maple, basswood, and sycamore. But I’ve also seen it on drier, higher slopes underneath a canopy of poplar, oak, and hickory. The bulbs were smaller in the uplands, but they were growing, and the population was strong and in the thousands. Work with this species and play with it, it may hold even more surprises!

Camassia scilloides range and distribution
Camassia scilloides range and distribution

Our eastern woodland camas is generally found on the west side of the Appalachian mountains, although there are a few scattered populations in piedmont South Carolina, North Carolina, and Maryland, and the blue ridge mountains of western Virginia. I imagine this plant may have been far more abundant, especially in the far east, before the pig and the plow. Unfortunately, scant ethnobotanical records in the eastern woodlands leave us to wonder about what the landscape may have even looked like prior to Europeans.

Eastern camas, Camassia scilloides
Eastern camas, Camassia scilloides.
Bulb of Camassia scilloides
The onion-like bulb of Camassia scilloides

Camas bulbs are rich in inulin, a tough starchy fiber that is normally indigestible to humans. While safe and edible raw — the texture is gummy and the flavor is mild, like squash — they are not recommended. Not only does the indigestible inulin make raw consumption inefficient, but like the similar Jerusalem artichoke, it can result in lots of farting, and if eaten in excess, gastrointestinal upset.

To effectively eat camas, you have to cook the bulbs until they caramelize. With heat, the indigestible inulin is converted into delicious and digestible fructose sugars. However, it can taste a long time to do this. Camas is a true slow food, taking up to 48 hours in a slow-cooker until they turn brown like the wood of walnut.

Traditionally, camas was gathered in the late spring or early summer as the seeds were ripening. At this crucial time, people would dig huge amounts of camas bulbs, enough for a year’s supply. And as they dug each bulb, they would leave behind the smaller bulbs to regenerate the patch, and scatter the seed from the larger bulbs, ensuring future harvests and a healthy population.. After the bulbs were dug, they would be pit-roasted in earth ovens over a period of days until richly brown and caramelized. Once they were fully cooked, the roots would be dried out as an anytime snack, and also for grinding into a flour.

After caramelization, the camas becomes sweet from the sugars. It’s hard to describe the taste, but it’s very good — sweet, firm, and flavorful, almost like if molasses and a vegetable got together and had a baby.

Camas is a high-calorie complex carbohydrate food with some protein and a hint of fat. It is a good source of calcium and magnesium. (https://www.fs.fed.us/) When cooked properly and gathered in abundance, camas is a hearty staple food supplying the baseline of one’s nutritional needs.

The young flower scape is also edible, tasting much like asparagus. It is a succulent and flavorful raw vegetable — delicious — but I wouldn’t recommend trying it unless you find yourself in a large population. While harvesting the stalk won’t kill the plant, it may set it back or prevent it from flowering in that year.

While our eastern woodland camas is still abundant in a few states, it is going to require several years of conscious tending, rewilding, and management to increase any given population to the point where it can be a regenerative food source for individuals, small-families, and groups, and no longer a novelty food.

Camassia scilloides bulbs before slow-cooking
Fresh camas bulbs before slow-cooking with steam.
Camassia scilloides bulbs after slow-cooking
Camas bulbs after slow-cooking for 48 hours with steam.

Camassia sets seed abundantly. Gather as the seed pods turn brown and the seeds turn black in the late spring or early summer. The seeds seem to be tolerant of some drying, but it’s best to err on the side of caution and store in cool, moist conditions if not sowing immediately. The seed is double-dormant by some accounts, meaning if sown in the fall it will not emerge the following spring, but the spring of the year after. The seed needs two cold periods, in other words.

Ripened pods turn brown and split to reveal shiny black seeds. Picture taken May 1st, 2017 in central Alabama.
Ripened pods turn brown and split to reveal shiny black seeds. Picture taken May 1st, 2017 in central Alabama.
Dried pods with ripened seed of Camassia scilloides.
Dried pods with ripened seed of Camassia scilloides.
Seeds of Camassia scilloides.
Seeds of Camassia scilloides.
Camassia quamash seed
Camassia quamash seed
Camassia quamash germinating
Camassia quamash germinating. The black skin is shed and a thin root radicle or two probe for good earth. The first-year seedlings appear like tiny strands of grass.

After germination, it may be another five years at least before the first flowers bloom and set seed of their own. Camas is thus a seven-year investment, and worth every moment.

The greater camas (Camassia leichtlinii) of the west has the largest bulbs of any camas species, and I was given some this year to grow out. I’m excited to see how they do, and also find myself wondering about potential breeding projects or improvements. Will C. leichtlinii and C. scilloides cross to make larger-bulbed, woodland-hardy plants? Will C. leichtlinii also take to a spring ephemeral niche, growing under a woodland canopy? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but that’s what makes plant rewilding so much fun. While I could always grow out these C. leichtlinii in a garden setting, I’m far more interested in their potential to grow wild.

Sizable bulbs of Greater Camas, Camassia leichtlinii
Sizable bulbs of Greater Camas, Camassia leichtlinii

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.

Toadshades and Wakerobins — Trillium species

Painted trillium, Trillium undulatum
Painted trillium, Trillium undulatum (Vermont, June 1st, 2016)

Trillium flowers offer a spectacular spring display. Commonly known as toadshade and wakerobin, they rank among the most beautiful, and the most illusive, of spring ephemeral wildflowers. They come in many different sizes, arrangements, and colors, from the smallest Snow Trilliums (Trillium nivale) to the Sweet Wakerobins (Trillium vaseyi) with flowers as wide as your hand is long! The distribution of Trillium species is all across the North Hemisphere in temperate regions. They are found in forests with rich, loamy soil remaining moist throughout the year.

One of the local native species to the Mid-Atlantic region that I call home has large red flesh-colored flowers. These red wakerobins — Trillium erectum — are colored as well as scented so as to attract the attention of carrion flies for pollination. In the eastern temperate forests of North America, it is quite common to find red, flesh-colored flowers. Everything from trillium,  to pawpaw, sweetshrub, wild ginger, and even skunk cabbage. And every one of these plants are pollinated by carrion flies! Why carrion flies? This is a fascinating ecological aside. As John Muir said,

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

There is more to the flower and fly connection than meets the eye…

When we think of pollination, we think of the honey bee. But the honey bee is not native to North America. Instead, our native bees are ground bees. The ground bees don’t emerge until soil temperatures begin to warm mid-spring, in late April or early May around here in the Mid-Atlantic. (This time also coincides with the opening of nectar-rich nutrient-dense tulip poplar blossoms!). By the time mid-spring comes around, most of our early wildflowers are already in bloom.

Rather than relying on the slumbering bees for pollination, garnering the attention of carrion flies instead seems the better evolutionary strategy. The carrion flies seek out the colors and smells of rotting meat, and they emerge much earlier in the spring — even in the late winter — thanks to the thermogenesis abilities of a plant called skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). Skunk cabbage can generate temperatures 15–35 °C (27–63 °F) warmer than the air surrounding the plant! Known as the mother plant by some, its deep red mottled flowers with a foul, rotten smell like flesh prove quite attractive to the carrion flies, who awaken with the warm microclimates created by the skunk cabbages piercing through snow and ice like spears. The flies awaken before the eve of the upcoming spring flower show that will unfold over the coming weeks. These interrelationships demonstrate to us vividly how the ecosystem is more than the sum of its parts.

Trillium erectum growing along the Susquehanna
Trillium erectum growing along Susquehanna (April 15th, 2016)

Trillium species are an occasional food and medicine to humans. The leaves may be eaten as cooked greens, but the root is bitter and inedible, and ought to be considered poisonous. Trillium are within the family Melanthiaceae, which contains some of the most toxic plants such as the death camas (Toxicoscordion/Stenanthium/Zigadenus sp.), fly poisons (Amianthum sp.), and hellebores (Veratrum sp.).

According to folk medicine, a decoction of Trillium root has the medicinal value of controlling blood flow, either to stop internal bleeding or to help in its passage. It was used as an herb to stop bleeding after birth, thus becoming known as “birthwort” or “bethroot.”

Trillium hybrid along Susquehanna
Trillium hybrid along Susquehanna (April 30th, 2016)

The seeds of Trillium develop inside fruit-like capsules in mid-summer. These fruits remain upon the plant for several weeks before they ripen, turn soft, and eventually fall to the ground and split open. Each seed has a large elaiosome attached. An elaiosome is made up of fatty lipids and amino acids, making the seed attractive as a food source to ants who carry them underground into their colonies. Once underground, the ants consume the elaiosome and cast the naked seed into a rubbish pile. Here the seed awaits germination in an optimal environment in terms of light, temperature, and moisture. This process is known as myrmechocory.

Myrmechocory, ants of Trillium seed
“Myrmechocory” — Ants on Trillium seed (not my image)

See the beauty of ecological relationships… Symbiosis is found everywhere. The skunk cabbage fosters carrion flies to pollinate Trillium flowers which form a seed that gets dispersed by ants. What a wonderful, interconnected world!

Trillium erectum gone to seed
Trillium erectum gone to seed (West Virginia, July 14th, 2016)

As the fruit of Trillium begins to soften after a few weeks upon the plant — generally in July and August — you can begin to harvest it. Pick whole fruits and keep them somewhere moist where they can ripen further if necessary, becoming even softer until they split open.

Trillium fruits
Trillium fruits in July (Pennsylvania, July 6th, 2016)
Trillium seed spilled upon the ground
Trillium seed spilled upon the ground (Pennsylvania, July 3rd, 2016)
Seeds inside the fruit of Trillium erectum
Seeds inside the fruit of Trillium erectum (July 3rd, 2016)

Trillium seeds, like ramps (Allium tricoccum), are double-dormant, meaning they need to wait not one, but two winters for germination. However, by harvesting the seeds a little bit early when they are slightly premature, the seeds react by germinating faster, after only a single winter. Some horticulturalists will do this in order to speed-up production times. I don’t have any experience doing this. For my purposes, reintroducing this plant species into new areas, I have allied myself with time and do not have such a sense of urgency. For the sake of genetics and plant health, I prefer my seeds to be as mature as possible and that they take their time.

To store Trillium seed, keep them in a cool, dark, and moist environment. If they dry out, they change to a darker color, shrivel up, and completely lose viability. To prevent this, I place them in a bucket filled with damp forest soil and I leave them there until I am ready to plant them into the ground.

Growing Trillium from seed is another one of those long-term plant investments. After sowing (year 1), there’s the double dormancy, and then the first monocotyledon leaf grows out of the ground and stretches out (year 2). The Trillium may continue with just one leaf another year. But by year 4, all three leaves ought to be showing. It may not be until another 3 years has passed before the Trillium flowers and can set seed of its own. They take overall approximately 7 years from seed to flower. Colonies will form, but can take a very long time to establish. However, with consistent sowing for six years straight, by the seventh year a colony ought to be self-sustaining.